Performer of the Week: Thuso Mbedu

Thuso Mbedu Underground Railroad Episode 2

THE PERFORMER | Thuso Mbedu

THE SHOW | Amazon Prime’s The Underground Railroad

THE EPISODE | “Chapter 2: South Carolina” (May 14, 2021)

THE PERFORMANCE | The endless longing of Mbedu’s soulful eyes immediately draw you into her character Cora with the same alluring power of a young Ruby Dee. Every pain and triumph lingers on her face, compelling you to study her.

Cora is a woman who has experienced great loss but, in the second installment of Barry Jenkins’ 10-part limited series, she is trying her damnedest to hold on to joy. The quizzical way Cora’s countenance scrunches when she learns that emancipated Black people in this town can’t buy candy, and the slow-burning heartbreak she expresses when she learns the white people in power don’t want them to bear children either, illuminate the actress’ boundless range. Before reality sets in, there are glimmers of hope for Cora — learning to read, working for respectable wages and forging a deeper relationship with Caesar — and the South African newcomer flawlessly embodies these well-earned exhalations.

When Caesar tells Cora that he would like to stay in the fictional Griffin, South Carolina under their assumed fake names, get married and raise a real family as self-emancipated former slaves, Mbedu shifts her wistful visage into a trusting one. And when he kisses her and apologizes for being bold, her Cora isn’t offended. She loves him and coquettishly responds with, “One kiss and you’re talking about babies, huh?”

But she intuits Caesar’s need for her faith in him and, after knowingly smiling, Mbedu allows her heroine to reward his vulnerability by adding, “If you want to stay, we stay. I’m not getting on that train without you.” This is why her broken promise stings all the more after Ridgeway captures Caesar and an angry white mob kills him. Suddenly, Mbedu has to drain Cora’s face of its short-lived mirth and ready it for war.

Mayans MC Carla BarattaHONORABLE MENTION | Mayans MC‘s third season ended in explosive fashion, with the Santo Padre charter on the verge of literal war. But it’s the quiet intensity of Carla Baratta‘s performance that’s lingering with us most after Tuesday’s finale. After grieving unfathomable loss for the past nine episodes — her infant son, her relationship with Angel, even her own hair — Adelita appeared in Episode 10 seeking vengeance on Potter, and Baratta conveyed the woman’s rage and heartbreak while hardly ever raising her voice above a whisper. With every line she spoke, Baratta’s lips trembled, and tears streamed down her cheeks as Adelita confronted the people who took everything from her. Adelita might be small, but her mere presence has rightfully terrified anyone who’s encountered her in Season 3; in this final episode, Baratta was fiercer than ever, making Adelita much more frightening than any weapon she might wield at her enemies.

Halston Krysta RodriguezHONORABLE MENTION | As the muse and close friend of the fashion mogul Halston, Krysta Rodriguez razzled and dazzled us with her smooth portrayal of superstar Liza Minnelli. Not only was her turn impressive in terms of her look and cadence, but in Episode 2, Rodriguez proved she could match that signature Minnelli swag when she recreated the singer’s iconic “I Gotcha” performance (fiery red dress and all). And she later leapt off the screen during an effervescent rendition of “Bonjour Paris.” Singing and dancing aside, the actress also displayed grit, as Liza slapped Halston with some tough love when he doubted his vision before a big show. “That’s what it is to be an artist,” she empathized, before dictating, “So throw your little fit, but you grab your smelling salts, you haul your cheeks off the f–king fainting couch and you march that tight fabulous ass back in there.” Liza certainly didn’t play around! And neither did Rodriguez.

Girls5eva Renée Elise GoldsberryHONORABLE MENTION Girls5eva star Renée Elise Goldsberry had us laughing from the start of Peacock’s musical comedy. But in Episode 6, the actress delivered a string of wickedly clever bon mots with such sharpness and perfect comedic timing that we’ll be quoting her character for months to come. Although Wickie was upset to find out that a “human B-side” of a person was profiting off her “Cease and desist, bitch!” rant from The Maskical: The Musical (“It was a pastiche of the Jim Carrey oeuvre,” Wickie explained), it turned out to be a blessing for Goldsberry. The actress delivered a hilarious knockout of a performance in every scene, going for outrageousness with gusto during the Maskical flashbacks and adding delightful inflections to Wickie’s dialogue (“How dare you, mon frère!”). Like her ’90s pop star alter ego, Goldsberry is a diva worthy of worship.

Blue Bloods Will HochmanHONORABLE MENTION | For months, Blue Bloods‘ Joe Hill — a Reagan family member discovered in last May’s finale — has been conspicuously MIA. Well, boy, did he come back with a bang in Season 11’s two-hour closer, providing Will Hochman an outstanding showcase as he carried a huge chunk of the narrative. While Joe was embedded with gun runners, Hochman showed us the detective’s savviness in collecting information while protecting his cover, and also his genuine affinity for crêpes-loving Tyce. But the finale asked that we, like the Reagans, worry about Joe’s true agenda, and especially in the scene where he shot at Tyce’s feet to extract intel, Hochman sold us on his intensity. When push came to shove, though, Joe proved every bit as honorable as his Reagan kin, and his reclaimed seat at family dinner fit like a well-worn glove.

Which performance(s) knocked your socks off this week? Tell us in Comments!