Shonka Dukureh, Actress Who Played Big Mama Thornton in ‘Elvis,’ Dies at 44
Shonka Dukureh, the actress who portrayed Big Mama Thornton in the recently-released Elvis movie, was found dead in her Nashville apartment on Thursday (July 21). The 44-year-old was just one month removed from watching her big screen debut in theaters.
Metro Nashville Police confirmed Dukureh's death on social media, noting that she was found in her bedroom of an apartment she shared with her two young children. No foul play is evident, the tweet reads. Her death has not yet been classified.
Kothe Way is in Antioch, a suburb of Nashville. Dukureh — a Memphis native — was a valuable member of the community prior to landing her role as Big Mama Thornton by chance. She graduated from Fisk University with a theater degree and earned a degree in education from Trevecca Nazarene. Per WPLN, she taught second grade in the Metro School system. Many of her students reached out after seeing her in Elvis.
"They’re blown away, like, 'Wow! Miss Shonka! Really'" Dukureh told the radio station in an interview done earlier this summer. "I said, 'I’m still Ms. Shonka, you know!'"
Elvis was Dukureh's first movie, and she didn't initially audition for the role of Big Mama Thornton, or any role. WPLN reports that she was hired to be a backing vocalist along with about 50 other singers. A year later, she got a call asking if she wanted to portray Big Mama Thornton, whose song "Hound Dog" was an early hit for Elvis Presley.
ABC 24 in Memphis talked to Dukureh upon the film's release in June and learned that it was Austin Butler, the actor who portrayed Presley, who was particularly taken by her performance. "He said, 'Shonka, I didn't know whether or not to pound the table or what as you were singing,'" she recalled.
Still, amid all of her newfound fame, Dukureh was most focused on two fans in particular: "To just have my children sitting in that theater watching me come on the screen," she told the TV station, "and for them to just scream in the theater, 'That's my mom!', I was so proud."