Yaya DaCosta is known by many TV fans as the dynamic Nurse April Sexton on NBC’s “Chicago Med.” She’s also a mother who believes in connecting with her son by disconnecting from her phone. She’s a doula. She’s a fierce self-care advocate and proponent of daily meditation. She’s a pro in front of the camera but she’s highly selective about the projects she pursues. She loves to dance. She’s also a Harlem native, a Brown alumna, and enjoys learning new languages.
In short—DaCosta is the epitome of a multifaceted modern mother, and she’s proud to embrace the fact that she’s never just one thing.
“I realize that every human being is multifaceted and that we all have variations. There are circumstances that affect us in different ways and so, who I was and who you thought I was yesterday does not necessarily determine how I behave tomorrow,” she says. This mindset extends to her work as an actress on “Chicago Med” (which was recently renewed for a fourth season) in key ways. “As an actor, [I try to] give my character April the benefit of the doubt and be willing to give her room to grow and be a multifaceted person, in the same way that I give that to other people in real life…it’s an interesting exercise for me to relate to my character.”
Any follower of the “Chicago” trifecta (which includes the overlapping “Chicago Med,” “Chicago Fire,” and “Chicago PD”) can attest that DaCosta’s portrayal of April showcases an ever-evolving range of emotions, personality quirks, and strengths and weaknesses. Like DaCosta, April is protective of her family, a hard worker, and a consummate caretaker.
“April is a lover. She is a lover of people, she connects very easily with people—co-workers and patients alike, but especially with patients—I think she’s able to put herself in other people’s shoes and kind of connect with them in the way that she would want to be connected with if she were in that position… I think that’s her main gift,” DaCosta explains. “She’s also a big family person. She loves her family and she strongly identifies with her family and where she comes from.”
Many of those same qualities ring true in DaCosta’s own life. Growing up in Harlem, DaCosta was one of four siblings (the eldest of whom passed away five years ago). Despite having been accepted to, and enrolled in, LaGuardia Professional Performing Arts School in the Drama, Dance, and Vocal departments, she decided at the last-minute to follow in her siblings’ footsteps and went away to boarding school in Massachusetts at age 13. She credits both the experience of going away to New England for school and of coming of age in 1980s Harlem as shaping who she is as a mother and a woman today.
“New York when I was growing up, at least in Harlem, was not the safest place. So I was parented with a lot of warning and caution and stress…I don’t want to use the word ‘paranoid,’ because it wasn’t that, but [my parents] were hypervigilant and they needed to be,” she recalls of her childhood. “My parents had four kids and we all went to this school [in Massachusetts]. We loved New York but we also wanted to be free to become who we were meant to be without having to be so hard and so street and so guarded and so concerned about where we were going to be safe…it was tough. I feel like going away to school offered me the ability to go to class and focus on learning more, rather than what I was wearing and if a boy liked me and whether I had the right sneakers and clothes and hairstyle—because I didn’t! At that time, that was before the ‘natural hair’ movement. I never had a perm because that’s just how I was raised. So for me growing up getting teased in New York and then to go away to Massachusetts and have all these kids from all over the world, all these wealthy kids say: ‘Oooh, your hair is so cool!’ I was like: ‘Yeah! I am cool! I am free, I am me!’”
Post-boarding school, DaCosta went on to study at Brown, and after graduating with a degree in Africana Studies and International Relations, her pride in her individuality served her well as she made her career in the entertainment world. Reality TV aficionados and 2000s pop culture buffs will remember DaCosta (in her early 20s at the time) as a standout cast member on Cycle 3 of “America’s Next Top Model” (where she finished as the runner-up) back in 2004. From there she pursued acting, portraying memorable characters in “Ugly Betty,” “The Kids are All Right,” “Lee Daniels’ The Butler,” and as the iconic Whitney Houston in Lifetime’s Angela Basset–directed “Whitney” before landing a starring role in the “Chicago” franchise. While building her acting resume, she also prioritized taking time to become more centered through dance and meditation (“Any kind of dance class, any kind of moving meditation is very moving and grounding for me”), to become a mother (her son is 4), and to become a doula and explore a growing passion for birth work.
“When you have a day job that’s demanding, it’s hard to have a side job. A job like being a doula requires you to be on call—you never know when that baby is going to come. Even though I had my first birth as a doula in 2010, there haven’t been that many over the years because I know, as someone who has given birth, how important it is to go into that experience feeling calm, and ready, and supported, and knowing that everyone is going to be there who says they’re going to be there. I can’t call and say: ‘Oh sorry, I can’t, I’m on set,’” she says of her work in the birth world. “I’ve been really blessed and I’ve had divine timing—the births I was supposed to be at, I was at. They were really beautiful and it really affected me and I have a whole other, secret life… I love what I do, so I’m being very creative in trying to incorporate other things that I love in my life while still honoring my craft [in acting].”
Like all parents, DaCosta has to actively work to find a balance between the personal and the professional. She makes the work-life balance equation work for her circumstances by prioritizing quality time at home (which means making a point to turn the electronic devices off), leaving work at work, and putting self-care at the top of her list.
“It’s all about the little things just to replenish your spirit, especially if you’re in a profession where you’re giving all day, and especially for moms, who are giving to their families all day long and all week long. Even if it’s just once a week—even if it’s on a Sunday morning when everyone is still sleeping, before you start up brunch—take that moment for yourself,” DaCosta says, in a resounding endorsement of mamas taking #MeTime.
For her, these moments of essential care often take the form of meditation. “Being in the practice of meditation, for years, has really helped me remember how to return to that place of centeredness and calm, because even when I’m in the midst of absolute insanity I still can touch back to my baseline and check in with how I’m feeling, and then let my feelings guide the decisions that I make and the things that I say. I hadn’t done that in the past; when I was younger, I would get so caught up in the race and be so eager to just do, do, do, do and then end up doing the wrong thing. That’s one of my favorite ways [to practice self-care],” she reflects. “If meditation seems daunting, I think you want to take that bath, stretch, and just reach your hands up to the sky and feel the connection. Try to move your feet and feel your arms as branches and remember that you are connected to all there is.”
Staying centered, DaCosta says, helps her make more conscious decisions and be a more present mother. Her 4-year-old little guy is, by her enthusiastic telling, energetic, imaginative, and excitedly gearing up for Kindergarten this fall. He is currently enthralled with LEGOs, PlayDoh, Wild Animals, the family cat Osho, going to the park, climbing, superheroes (especially T’Challa), dancing and singing, and martial arts (as DaCosta note, his dancing style resembles Tai Chi, which she actually practiced while he was in the womb). DaCosta tries to encourage his creative and personable side by leading by example, especially when it comes to tech use and laying the groundwork for quality time at home.
“I leave work at work and I just make sure that I’m fully present at home with my son. I wait until he’s sleeping to study my scripts for the week and I really try to just put him first when I’m at home, and then when I’m at work, I’m also fully present and fully at work doing my job,” she says. “Energetically, I’ve learned to not be on my phone at home…because, nowadays, children are so used to seeing their
parents looking down instead of at them. Growing up, we didn’t have that and I just wonder, sometimes, what that might be doing.”
To the same point, she tries to be equally aware of what kind of technology she’s exposing her son to on his end as well. “We’re giving [kids] phones a lot earlier, we’re giving them iPads, like: ‘Watch this video, use this app, leave us alone!’ I just don’t want to ever, ever lose that connection with my child. Devices have their place and there are some cool learning apps, but I just don’t want that technology takeover to be at the expense of a healthy emotional body and psyche,” she adds. “I truly try to put the phone down—I try to leave it in the other room and put it on airplane mode or turn it off. I have to make an effort because it’s so addictive.”
Judging by the decidedly cheery note that her voice strikes when describing her son, it seems like her efforts at creating a grounded and positive home environment are yielding benefits for both mother and child. DaCosta is understandably proud of her growing youngster’s expressiveness, his knack for playing “peacemaker” among the other children at his daycare, and his ability to take joy from learning new things every day. Like his mother, DaCosta’s 4-year-old loves to dance.
“It is a constant dance party in my house! He loves to dance and he loves to sing…he’s just so much fun,” she gushes. “He’s going to start Kindergarten in a few months, so we’re trying to take little steps [towards that]. We still have fun and we’re still playing—we just happen to be holding a pencil and some lined paper, and we’re practicing writing and some numbers. He sounds out letters and he’s starting to read. We take breaks and then we dance again… He just makes me so happy and so proud!”
In addition to getting her little guy ready to head off to Kindergarten in the fall, DaCosta is spending the rest of the remaining weeks of summer anticipating the twists and turns that might be coming up for season four of “Chicago Med.” The new season is set to drop on September 26; of course, the potential for crazy crossovers throughout the “Chicago” franchise on NBC (all three shows will air on Wednesday nights this season) is always on the table. That said, DaCosta promises that she’s looking forward to learning what’s next for April just as much as fans are.
“I can’t wait to find out [what happens next season]…everyone’s really curious,” she says. “People don’t realize that we don’t get a script far in advance. We literally get them, sometimes, the week before, sometimes a few days before. They haven’t called us from the writer’s room yet, telling us what to be ready for. Not knowing can actually be good for the performance: You can just be in the moment and stay true to the character’s instincts.”