She plays the role of Ayo Demi in Isono, a young Nigerian woman who leaves her family to study medicine.
Her brother passed away due to mental issues and her strict religious father, Pastor Abiola believes that depression could be easily prayed away.
This upsets Ayo Demi and motivates her to study medicine in order to deal with the stereotypes around mental health and help people like her brother.
Almost done with her studies and practicing as a health practitioner, Ayo Demi’s life takes a turn. She falls in love with Gabriel, played by Bohang Moeko, and her life has many twists and turns.
Chioma Umeala (23), who plays the role of Ayo Demi, has a lot in common with her character.
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Like Ayo Demi, Chioma is also half Nigeria (Igbo) from her father’s side and half South African with her mom being Xhosa.
“But I was born and raised in Joburg. I understand vernacular languages, but I sound terrible when I try to speak any,” Chioma says.
“Like me, Ayo is very strong-willed, willing to stand up for what she believes in. Even if it means creating tension with her parents. She is very passionate, and fights for what’s right.”
As a young girl, Chioma was always creative. “I would choreograph performances for Christmas and other occasions.”
At 10 years old, she could confidently play the piano, percussion instruments, and guitar.
“It was in high school where I took up drama as a subject and it resonated with me,” Chioma says.
“But you know some parents want us to be engineers, doctors, or lawyers. My parents were reluctant about me acting, but they gave up when they saw it was my passion.”
When she was younger, she learned her dad could play the guitar. “But he took the architectural route and I understood then that my gift runs in the family,” she says.
“I was attending auditions and had gotten jobs in adverts, small acting roles, and featured in a few music videos,” Chioma says.
When she was unable to further pay for her fees, she took a short acting course at Indigo View.
“I received a lot of the training I needed at Indigo View in a short space of time because they train actors who are already working,” Chioma says. "I trained with real industry professionals and cut my teeth in the art form."
The course was on weekends and on weekdays, she was able to work. Now she's enjoying the fruits of her labour.
Chioma features in AKA’s music video Caiphus Song as one of the bridesmaids at the wedding ceremony alongside Warren Masemola and Jessica Nkosi.
In the short space of time since she got her biggest acting job on Isono, Chioma has learned the importance of shutting out the noise and focusing on being a great actress.
“As a woman, this industry can feel like you need to be a personality. People focus too much on image, Instagram, and everything else but their craft,” Chioma says.
“I have to constantly remind myself that all of those things might get me by, but it is the craft that will give you longevity. It is the most important thing,” she adds.
She has learned to make valuable friendships where she learns something new about her job every day.
“I made friends on the set of Isono who advise me on this new journey I am embarking on,” Chioma says.
“Rosemary Zimu is also someone I grew up with, she is my best friends’ sister and I often bounce ideas off her and get guidance when needed. But I still have a lot to learn, and my mind is open to anything that will help me be a better actress,” Chioma says.
In the near future, Chioma sees herself as an international star.
“I struggle a lot with not being able to speak vernac languages as a black actress. But maybe it will work for me overseas,” she says.
“I’d like to do more action films and get roles where I can spend months on end building a character and even be part of a musical. I don’t sing like Beyoncé, but I can hold a note.”
Chioma looks up to Trevor Noah, Lupita Nyong'o, and Zendaya Coleman.
“They [Trevor, Lupita] have managed to break away from their continent. Their hard work has made them international stars. I respect Zendaya because we are almost the same age and I have seen her grow, sharpening her tools on the job and she is someone who mirrors my life,” Chioma says.
This year, Chioma will appear on David Kau’s film The First Last Tour and she has bagged a collaboration with Starbucks SA hosting an initiative to empower aspiring actresses on their journey.