Talking brownstones and Broadway with Bed-Stuy’s Gbenga Akinnagbe

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Gbenga Akinnagbe wearing a hoodie from his brand Liberated People, one of two businesses he runs in addition to acting in HBO’s ‘The Deuce’ and the upcoming Broadway adaptation of ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ Photo: Liberated People

Many people recognize Gbenga Akinnagbe from his breakout television role as Chris Partlow on “The Wire,” but I wouldn’t call him an “actor.” He’s more than that—he’s a storyteller. From the acting roles he takes to his antique furniture line and social activism lifestyle clothing brand, he’s always telling a story. In doing so, he spends a lot of time out and about in his Bed-Stuy neighborhood. If you thought you saw him on the A train, but weren’t sure—it was probably him.

I spoke with Gbenga about his current role on HBO’s ‘The Deuce,” his upcoming Broadway debut as Tom Robbins in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and the inspiration behind his Brooklyn-based businesses.

What brought you to Brooklyn?

For a while, I was determined to not be one of those lemmings going to Brooklyn. I prided myself for never living underneath 116th Street. Then, I had to move, as people often do here in New York for one reason or another. Online one day, I saw this apartment that looked very different from any apartment I’d been in. I said, all right, I’ll check this one out, this one apartment in Brooklyn. It was in a brownstone, and so I came to Brooklyn to check it out, and I liked the street, I liked the neighborhood.

So, I moved. I lived there for a year and I loved it. I had to move eventually because the ceiling kept leaking, and then there was mold. The landlord couldn’t afford to fix it, and I couldn’t sleep. It was making me sick. But at that point, I had fallen in love with Brooklyn and brownstones.

What part of Brooklyn was that?

Bed-Stuy. This was maybe 2006 or 2007.

And you’ve been here since?

Yeah. I’ve traveled around the world a lot for work and other things, but Bed-Stuy has been my base, it’s been my home.

What’s keeping you here? What about Bed-Stuy made it the place to stay?

I love my neighborhood. I love the shop owners, I love the grandmothers, I love the old men, I love the mailmen and mail-women. People stand on the corner and talk about stuff and catch up. They look out for one another. I’m not saying that that’s not in other neighborhoods, but I found it here.

Your breakout television role was on “The Wire,” and now you’re back on HBO with your current role on “The Deuce.” How is that?

Yeah, I’m back working with my “Wire,” and my HBO family. The second season is on the air right now. It’s been a pretty dope season, and they’ve written some really cool stuff for my character, Larry Brown. It takes place in the mid-70s in New York City, to show how things were and how things started to change in the early days of porn. It also shows the socio-economic depictions of everyone in New York City. Well, not everyone. People who lived, worked around, and thrived off and suffered from The Deuce, which is 42nd Street.

Akinnagbe as Larry Brown in ‘The Deuce.” Photo: Paul Schiraldi

Tell me a little bit more about your character, Larry Brown.

Larry’s a pimp. He’s got his whores, and he keeps that family together the best he can. It’s a dysfunctional family, obviously. He’s a pimp in transition, in changing times. You used to thrive as a pimp, but now pimps have become obsolete to a certain extent, and life on the street is also wearing him. So, some pimps overdose, some pimps get shot, some pimps leave the game. Some pimps get arrested, and that’s just regular. But then you add that times are changing, and how people access sex workers is also changing. So, the pimps have become irrelevant in that process to an extent. Larry is a man without a country right now. Trying to find himself and his role, his sense of meaning. I think that’s relatable to anyone, whether you’re a pimp or a President.

Do you know if it’s coming back for another season?

The show has been picked up for a third season.

So, you’re busy with acting, but you’re also an entrepreneur. You have your vintage furniture line, Enitan Vintage. You also have your social activism, lifestyle brand, Liberated People. What was the inspiration behind both of them?

It started with Liberated People years ago. I had been part of a number of different protests, and movements around the world, and I’d find myself in the streets of different countries with people who spoke different languages and looked different than other people from other streets where I was protesting. I realized that despite the specifics of the individual movements, everyone was pretty much protesting for their human and democratic rights. I also realized that oftentimes the protesters, or people who are fighting for their rights feel like they’re alone in that fight. That only this group of people, from this neighborhood or this country, or this race, or this gender, suffer in this particular way.

So, Liberated People strives to use art, fashion, music, fundraisers, awareness to bring attention to those things, to liberation dates, which is something we all have in common.

Samuel Jackson wearing Liberated People’s Trayvon hoodie. Photo: Liberated People

Your brand made headlines when celebrities like Kerry Washington, Ava DuVernay, Alan Cumming, Dwyane Wade, and more posted photos wearing your Trayvon hoodies. Can you tell me about that partnership with the Trayvon Martin Foundation?

I pledged to raise $50,000 for the Trayvon Martin Foundation. So, we printed these Trayvon hoodies, and different influencers posted pictures wearing the Trayvon hoodies and talking about what Black and Brown lives mean to them, in addition to the work that the Trayvon Martin Foundation is doing. It’s one thing to donate to a foundation, but it’s another thing to spread the awareness of the work of that foundation so people understand what Sybrina Fulton and Tracy Martin, Trayvon’s parents, are doing down there. So, that’s been the goal. We have a comedy fundraiser, coming up on October 28th at The Bell House. Michael Che will be hosting, and there will be a bunch of other comedians taking the stage.

Akinnagbe refashions vintage and antique settees and chairs with African wax-print fabrics for his furniture line, Enitan Vintage. Photo: Enitan Vintage

So Enitan Vintage, your furniture line, what was the inspiration behind it?

I love old things, particularly furniture that was built decades ago, there’s such an intelligence in the design. There’s such a storytelling in how it was built. The materials that were used, the shapes, who they were built for, and I find it fascinating. I have the ability to travel a lot for work, and so I get to see all these different pockets of culture manifested in antique and vintage furniture. I found a chair once that I liked and it was falling apart. It was in some guy’s basement, and I ended up buying it from him. It was beautiful. Even in its distressed state. I brought it home and it sat in my living room, and then as time went by, it got even more and more distressed. I realized I had to do something to save it, restore it.

I was shooting a movie in South Africa, and took that as an opportunity to find some fabrics. I found some that I liked, brought it back, gave it to an upholsterer, and told him what I was looking for as far as the design. I fell in love with the end product. I had that in my living room for a while. People came over and they saw it, and they’d ask, “Where’d you get this?” I’d tell them the story I just told you, and then I realized it appealed to a lot of people, but I also realized that I enjoyed doing it. I enjoyed that process.

Storytelling. That seems to be a common thread.

Yes, and trying to get better at it. Both Enitan and Liberated People, in the end, are different forms of storytelling to me. Creating, acting, producing, writing — they’re all different forms of the same thing.

So, with your various forms of storytelling, Enitan, Liberated People, acting — what feels like your side job? Acting obviously gave you the means and platform to start these other businesses, technically. But what feels like your side job?

None of them feel like my side jobs.

Really?

Yeah. And I know that frustrates a lot of people in my acting world who think acting should be my sole purpose. People say, “those are your side jobs, they don’t need to be prioritized.” They’re not my side gigs, they’re my additional passions.

What are you doing now? Where can people see you?

Starting November 1st, you can catch me in our previews of “To Kill a Mockingbird” on Broadway. Then we open December 13th.

Is this your Broadway debut?

I have done a lot of Off Broadway, which I love, but yes, this is my Broadway debut. I’ve never done Broadway before.

Who are you playing?

I play Tom Robbins. I’m super excited. The cast is amazing, the playwright, Aaron Sorkin, is brilliant. Our director, Bartlett Sher. From top to bottom, we have a super talented and giving group of people. Scott Rudin is producing. It’s a dream scenario for me, to be honest. To go from “The Deuce,” which is like me working with my family, to working on such an important play, at such an important time, with people who are giving as collaborators, and who also happen to be amazing at their jobs — I’ve been very fortunate.

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