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NINI’S DESIRES

niniThe sunlight that cracked through a blanket of dry grey clouds, made the garden restaurant feel warmer than it really was. Dry fallen leaves scattered freely around the chic green garden and I spotted a table just a second before seeing Nini Wacera. She spoke with alacrity to a group of patrons on the next table. My first assumption was that they were long lost buddies but I soon realized they were mafans. She spotted me and immediately shouted a greeting as she walked over…I might be the one who shouted the greeting, can’t remember since I also have this habit.

I noticed she was reading, The In-Between World of Vikram Lall. I absorbed the synopsis hastily and made a mental note to get it as I am a hunter-gatherer reader who depends on recommendations. The page she was at was marked by a large, dry deltoid leaf. Why had I never thought of doing that? I observed keenly as she explained how she finds the leaves. Actually it was very simple- She finds a dry leaf from wherever she visits and replaces it with the previous one. It was the combined intensity and simplicity of how she explained her view point that I found fascinating. Her soft skin and beauteous face did little to cover her tough but gentle demeanor. Still, I wondered, why? Why had I never thought of using a dry leaf as a bookmark? I was soon to find out that there are many things that this former capital FM radio presenter thought of and did differently from the rest of us.

We looked through the menu hoping to find delicious vegetarian dishes. By now half an hour had passed with us completing each other’s thoughts and philosophies and basking in her epiphanies. This is when I knew the interview was never going to end. Every sentence we had started gave birth to baby sentences each with its brothers and sisters. So quickly we settled on Indian vegetable curry, sending the waiter with a strong message that the food better come out as good as he had described it. As she gave back the menu we quickly took it from where we were which was actually nowhere and everywhere, (please tell me you know what I mean).

“Those extra-ordinary people like, Jesus and Buddha, chose to view their world from within them and in the process defy the realities of the societies at that time. The society saw them as different or even troublesome, but they simply chose not to join the robotic thinking of the society and therefore in turn changed the whole society’s perception,” She emphasized as she continued to explain how she viewed life. Her cunning and optimistic nature saturated our space and I easily understood why she had a constant bout of Midas touch in her acting career. She had co-starred in Dangerous Affair, a local film that was arguably the most popular in recent history until, Nairobi Half Life, – which she also featured in. Her name was probably propelled to the Kenyan masses through her antagonist charismatic role in, Wingu La Moto as Susan. She  featured in many more popular shows including Changes, Kona, Desperate Housewives Africa and Sense 8 but I do not intend to list down her CV for you. Check her Wikipedia…hehehe.

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 Back to the “Interview”. I became curious to know the epoch of her artistic journey.

“Why acting ?” I asked her.

She remained thoughtful for a moment as the sparkling hazel eyes behind her glasses riveted on mine.

“It’s the feeling. I love the feeling it gives me. It is like discovering a really good dish. Will you not order it again next time because it was too good the last time?” She explained as I warmed up to her story.

Nini Wacera had taken interest in theatre performances in school where she would represent, Kahuhia Girls, at the National Drama Festivals with solo verses or stage performances in which she landed on male roles. After school she joined the USIU. This was during the Safari Cats and Five Alive phenomenon. She wanted to join Safari Cats but her father would not let her. This is when she and her friend Lorna decided to form a  dance group, and called it Karisma. They had their share of fun as they were hired to dance in major events and for several famous artists including  FIVE ALIVE!

In the midst of it she found herself juggling dance and theatre at the Phoenix Players…and of course college…yes of course, college. One day she came to the Phoenix and found a long queue of beautiful female models. She found out that they were auditioning for a major role in an upcoming film. Nini, got excited as her secret desire had always been to act for screen. She was however nervous because she was not dressed for the role and felt intimidated by the beautiful elegant models on the queue. She had to go in last as she had not been invited. She entered the room to find a tired and frustrated looking panel of producers including Njeri Karago. They explained the part to her and she soon got into the character and enjoyed the audition. That is how she landed on the role of  Kui in Dangerous Affairs.

Her acting career was definitely been a fulfilling one and continued to be. She pointed out that part of the reason why her generation produced strong actors was because theatre directors of the time were committed to training actors as opposed to simply putting up a play. She acknowledged James Falkland’s influence in her career. This was a super opportunity to talk about what I actually really wanted from her. Earlier we had talked about the need to train our actors. I had done three workshops and thought of her in the fourth one. To my pleasant surprise, this had been Nini’s burden and desire as well.

In the recent five years, she has embraced a career as a casting director for tv, films, and TV commercials, Nini Wacera has found herself stuck in an all too familiar territory: Dealing with untrained actors. She explained her frustration of how she has had to audition the same actors year after year and every year only one or two of them come back improved. Most of them remained flat if not worse. It was clear to both Nini and I that our country had very talented actors. But talent was not necessarily translated to skill and therefore the delivery was wanting. If we did not train our pool of actors, then we had no case to put across whenever international films shot a Kenyan story and cast American or British actors to play Kenyan parts.

nini-arojiThe meeting ended with a decision to hold monthly workshops to train actors. For the first workshop with her, we agreed to  give an introduction class, foundation course and a Master Class.

Two weeks later the workshops happened and the results were astonishing. I discovered that Nini Wacera was an adept at the Meisner technique and very passionate about being truthful to the moment. Meisner technique is a style developed by American theatre practitioner, Sanford Meisner that mainly promotes the actor’s impulsive response to what is happening around him or to an imaginary object.

Watching the actors ‘become’, day by day was a tearful experience. Nini balanced technique with teacher’s intuition to a point where the students were compelled to dive deeper into their personal lives and tackle obstacles that prevented their impulses and imagination.

The intensity and physical demand of the sessions got hold of me on the last day. I turned to see if Nini felt the same. If she did, it was hard to tell. Her spirit was bubbly as ever. She embraced tightly with the actors who had now become family. She received more testimonials as she added more life lessons. Nduta Sialo, the incoming Secretary of the Kenya Actors Guild gave a vote of thanks that made me feel rejuvenated.

“This is exactly what we need!” She told Nini then turned to the rest of the class.nini6

“I am impressed with the high level of the training and the final outcome of the course which has ensured our total development, not only as actors, but as confident and beneficial members of the society. We hope to promote your courses as KAG across the country so that our members in other parts of Kenya can also acquire the important skills of acting on screen…”

As Nduta spoke to the actors, I looked at Nini and asked her of only one factor that would make her want to do this (training) again.

“There is no actor playing truthfully…acting is not pretending.” She said.

******************

Here is the information about the next workshops:

FOUNDATION IN ACTING COURSE

3 day workshop running for 3 consecutive weeks @ ksh 9,500.

Course schedule:

Tuesday 1st, 8th & 15th Nov 2016

Thursday:  3rd, 10th  & 17th Nov 2016

MASTER CLASS IN IMPROVISATION TECHNIQUES

1 day workshop @ ksh 4,500

18th Nov 2016

Above workshops will be held in Nairobi. Venue to be provided after booking.

Book through:

Mobile : 0797 730 083

Email: anactordevelopsstudio@gmail.com

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REVIEW OF KENYAN THEATRE AND THE 2015 SCENARIO, Courtesy of International Theater Institute (Japan)

REVIEW OF KENYAN THEATRE AND THE 2015 SCENARIO, Courtesy of International Theater Institute (Japan)

Last year, I was invited to contribute an article in The  Theatre Year Book  by the  Japanese Center of International Theatre Institute (ITI), a performing arts-oriented organization under the umbrella of UNESCO. Here is an english version of what was published. Photo credits go to, Darlyne Komukomu, Virani Media, Sitawa Namwalie, JSO.

 

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Mkamzee Mwatela, Mogambi Nthinga & Nick Ndenda star in, ‘Room of Lost Names’.

Omuwanga is fiddling through files behind the counter, fulfilling his eternal administrative duties. He is tallish and lean with a stern face that could slip into a frown. A sudden bellow of patriotic litany tears the silence making Omuwanga flinch and turn to see his colleague Gumali rise up from the ‘office’ desk as he cheekily continues singing. He pesters an irate Omuwanga to join him in singing the nostalgic patriotic song. The situation is saved by a worrisome youthful lady who pops into the ‘office’ to look for help. Soon she discovers that she is –as a matter of fact- dead; and is in a passage ‘office’ administered by deities. Omuwanga who is the god of light and goodness and Gumali the god of darkness and evil are meant to lead her to eternity. However, there is only one problem: she cannot remember her name. The gods are troubled as they cannot find her file and  without it she cannot be led to eternity. This Kenyan woman had encountered psychological and physical abuse that eventually led to loss of her life and alas, the loss of her name as well.

 

This is the plot of Sitawa Namwali’s Room of Lost Names, a play which perfectly summarizes the Kenyan theater scene.  Although Sitawa was clearly inspired by the story of Mercy Keino- a college girl who was allegedly killed after attending a party organized by a powerful Kenyan politician- the play also metaphorically depicts the current state of a blotchy Kenyan theatre due to the culmination of political interference that has inhibited a thriving popular theatre since the neo-colonial era. This has led many thespians and intellectuals to pose the question: Has Kenyan theatre been on its death bed for the last thirty years; and if so, why has it refused to die?

The provenance of the insidious misfortunes of Kenyan performing arts sector is in the history of the Kenya National Theatre. After the independence of Kenya from British rule in 1963, local intellectuals and performing artists applied pressure to the government to allow Kenyans to have more control of the Kenya Cultural Centre, incorporating the Kenya National Theatre which had been a white dominated affair from its opening in 1952. Thus a new board of directors with a black majority was appointed with Seth Adagala becoming the first Kenyan executive director in 1968. However the powers that be managed to penetrate the board and hence continued to control the KNT performance calendar.

Relentless intellectuals and theatre activists led by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, Ngugi Wamiiri and Micere Mugo continued agitation against white theatre domination. As a result the seventies and early eighties record highest activity of a thriving theatre culture and engendered African/Indigenous literature. The movement inspired the rise and effectiveness of popular literary theatre. Most memorable was the University of Nairobi travelling theatre (later the Tamaduni National Theatre) that used local languages towards local audiences in their plight to radicalize theatre in Kenyan communities.

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Kenya Police Band preparing to welcome President Uhuru Kenyatta during the re-opening of Kenya National Theatre.

One of the inspired communities was a village in the outskirts of Nairobi called Kamirithu, which was created by the British as an “emergency village” to house Gikuyu peasants who had been uprooted from their homes in an attempt to cut the line of support to the Mau Mau freedom fighters. As prof. David Ker chronicles in, ‘African Popular Theatre’.  In 1976, a group of peasants and workers formed the Kamirithu Community Education and Cultural Centre. Through one of their sub-committees, believed to have been run by illiterates, they built a syllabus for themselves based on problems of the village. Sympathetic radical intellectuals like Ngugi wa Mirii and his cousin Ngugi wa Thiong’o later joined the committee and were commissioned to develop a script based on the autobiographies of the newly literate peasants. That is when an extraordinary phenomenon occurred.

Villagers- some of whom had never once been inside a theatre- designed and constructed an open air theatre complete with a raised stage, roofed dressing-room, stores and an auditorium with a seating capacity of more than two thousand persons. Under a production team led by Gatonye wa Mugoiya, they experimented with matchsticks on the ground before building a small working model on which they based their final complex.

In other words, a village center whose majority were peasants, built a 2000-seater amphitheater! The play Ngaahika Ndeenda (I will marry if I want to) ran for several weeks attracting not only a wider interest in the community but also national and international news media. The local government was unnerved by the popularity of this play and begun to frustrate the Kamirithu Movement by making it difficult for the group to get performance permits. The struggle culminated in Ngugi Wa Thiong’o arrest and detainment at Kamiti Maximum Prison.

The action succeeded in suppressing the spread of the Kamirithu movement but the spirit of the center itself was unbroken.

Uhuru and Ngugi

From  right: His excellency Uhuru Kenyatta , prof. Ngugi Wathion’go & Prof. Micere Mugo

On his release from prison following the death of President Jomo Kenyatta, Ngugi wa Thiong’o returned to Kamirithu. The next play was based on Ngugi’s original piece ‘Maitu Njugira’ (Mother sing for me). It used formal narratives of a girl asking her mother to teach her old songs of 1930’s, about the struggle against British imperialism. As prof. David Kerr observes: the sub-committee had decided that the next play should avoid the dangerous material of contemporary story. Little did they realize that the regime in place was quite aware of the modern variants of imperialism that were strongly in place.

The play was never legally performed in Kenya as Kamirithu was denied a license to perform it. However, the group staged rehearsal at the Nairobi University theatre which caused stupendous excitement and drew crowds that the current shows can only dream of. It is recorded that there were such crowds that the Uhuru highways were blocked each afternoon. Rehearsals begun at 6.30 pm but by 3pm all the seats were already occupied; people sat on the stage, in the wings, on the stairs and even in the light and sound rooms. The corridors and stairways were crowded and those who could not get inside sat on the grass outside and listened through open doors and windows.

This however was a short lived experience and a past glory that present thespians have failed to re-live. The government felt that intellectuals were using theatre to incite the masses and quickly flexed its muscles. The Kamirithu amphitheater was razed to ashes and erased from the memory of the immediate generation. Great thespians and activists of the time ended up getting jailed or seeking exile to save their lives. It was at this point that Professors Micere Mugo and Ngugi Wa Thiong’o among other activists left for exile.

Protest theatre was actively discouraged and theatre arts in general dismissed as a non-productive profession to the public. This made parents skeptical about their children pursuing arts careers and artists given a pariah status in the Kenyan society. The censorship board at the infamous Nyayo house building (where government torture chambers were discovered) frustrated artists as they frequently banned shows on opening nights or even in the middle of a running. It is reported that the officials of the censors often knew little about literature and drama and hence personal ignorance dictated the literary palates of Kenya. This went on until the late 1990 when Miujiza Players obtained a court order declaring that no one could stop artists from staging a show. However the damage had already been done and the equivocal audience had found ‘better things to do’. As a result, thespians still struggle to fill up seats to date.

However other forms of theatre continued to flourish and sustain the performance sector. Keep in mind that Kenya is an ethnically diverse culture with many communities having ritual theatre routed deeply in their traditions. It was therefore inevitable that Kenyans would still maintain a desire to use the theatre spaces already built by white settlers during the colonial era.

Despite the exit (or retirement) of European actors and promoters; plus a white audience diminution in the 1990’s, the youthful Kenyan thespians continued to promote staging of original African performances. Such plays survived self-funding, insufficient rehearsal periods, low audience turn out and constant fear of potential political interference. Even though their aim was not wholly political in comparison to the Ngugi Wa Thiong’o-Kamirithu era, these new generation thespians argued that theatre was a more satiable and effective media if they were empowered to tell their own stories. As easy as it may sound, this has been a difficult idea to promote mainly due to the colonial hangover in our modern cultural lifestyle and scarce resources. Never the less, 2015 exhibited a renewed zeal to fulfill this exigent dream.

Dr. Zipporah Okoth’s TIGO, forthrightly displayed a candid desire by sixth generation Kenyan thespians to tell their own stories. The play was staged at the Phoenix Players, a small theatre space at the heart of Nairobi city center and also the oldest repertoire theatre in Kenya. TIGO is a musical drama and a contemporary adaption of African mythology on the Nilotic migration from Sudan. This is a story about three brothers Labong’o, Nyikal, and Bor who get into a conflict because of childhood rivalry that has grown into their adulthood. Dr. Zipora clearly wanted to explore the relevance of traditional values to the current lifestyle. As a result, she used both traditional songs and contemporary (mostly) Kenyan cover songs. The dances also had a mix of popular traditional dances like Kalapapla and modern afro-pop dance routines.

 

Wesely and cast

Original cast of , Radio Play’, from right -lying down- Michael Sengazi, Herve Kimenye, Elizabeth Senja Spackman (Showing back) and Wesley Ruzibizza) .

As if to remind this enthusiastic generation of our current woes relating to freedom of expression, Rwanda‘s Amizero Kompagnie staged RADIO PLAY at Story Moja Hay Festival and at art activism space PAWA 254. Radio Play is a dark comedy written by Elizabeth Senja Spackman and is about censorship on the radio. It talks about the unsaid stories of people’s lives and the secrets we each hold and how they affect us.  The Nairobi version included two Kenyan actors– Sitawa Namwalie and Mugambi Nthiga– who joined original cast members Hervé Kimenyi and Elizabeth Senja Spackman. They later staged the play in Addis Ababa at the culturally-hued Crossing Boundaries Theatre and Conference Festival.

Another political play staged was KAGGIA by John Sibi Okumu which was back by public demand after its run in 2014. It’s an autobiographic play about a Kenyan freedom fighter and anti-corruption hero Bildad Kaggia (1921-2005).

In KAGGIA, John Sibi-Okumu continues to explore what he labels ‘The Kenyan Condition’ and in this particular instance, the playwright is exercised by the themes of romantic and patriotic love.

Bruce Makau right plays Kenyatta opposite Harry Ebale's Bildad Kaggia

Hale Ebale (Lefts) as Bildad Kaggia & Bruce Makau as Jomo Kenyatta in, ‘Kaggia’

The historical sweep of the play covers the period between 1921 and 2014, the year in which it was written. Two young filmmakers, Stacey and Xan, seek to resuscitate the lives of Bildad Kaggia and his wife Wambui as they consider possible scenarios for a film anchored on their personal lives. The most powerful scene was the meeting between Kaggia (Played by Harry Ebale) and president Jomo Kenyatta ( played by Bruce Makau).We see two powerful men meet face to face  and stand their (ideological) ground despite one living in a state palace and the other in a slum. Unfortunately the enchanting actor, Harry Ebale, died of medical condition towards the end of the year leaving a forlorn theatre fraternity.

However, the opening of the renovated Kenya National Theatre was the most symbolic event of the year. Professors Micere Mugo and Ngugi Wathiong’o, who had been persecuted and forced to exile in the seventies under the watch of the first president Jomo Kenyatta, had now been invited as guests of the state and shared the platform with Jomo’s son, President Uhuru Kenyatta. Could this signify a realization to the state that literature and theatrical expression are indeed significant medium of social reflection and intellectual discourse that can actually help the government in its ‘Vision 2030’ development agenda? Only time will tell.

Aroji Otieno is a performing artist and writer based in Nairobi, Kenya.

 

KIZINGO Takes Averted Curve of Film-Distribution

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Fatuma Ali and Jakes Israel as Soni and Johni

 

When celebrated director, Simiyu Barasa, swung his spectacles from the front of his eyes to his bald head and broke the news to me, I thought it was something he was only considering; Only to find out that it  was an ongoing project. He had teamed up with the prolific (producer)Betty Kathungu-Furet, to produce the film, Kizingo.

In a country where film making was introduced as early as the 1950’s with marks of approbation  for its first president being a featured extra in one of those films, it is a considerate surprise that not much stride has been made towards making film an industry as well as a culture. All intricate challenges however point to one major impediment: Distribution.

Still our best hope is on the independent film maker who prioritizes an artistic aim and desire to connect with his/her audience. One may wonder how to categorize an indie from a mainstream film maker in Kenya. This argument is substantial as film making is still not a main source of livelihood in the country. Based on numerical availability,we could refer to  N.G.O and donor funded films as mainstream. A few are usually free to explore an authentic narrative while most are purely meant to proselytize or sustain a didactic social awareness theme.

The main reason why most film makers seek refuge from N.GO’s is purely financial. However, the only way they can create their own financial independence is by creating a consumer market. This is not a brand new idea neither is it a solution that I have just thought about and offered. It has been discussed in the film circles for as long as I have been in it. Unfortunately, no one has ever given it a serious try. Not until now!

“With Kizingo, the mission is to make a high quality film and then go on a countrywide tour to make sure that it is screened in all the counties via box office. The film makers will attempt to disapprove the myth that box offices only exist in Urban cities in Kenya, in film theatres. With a laid out plan to bring Cinema to the people, we aim to take the film to social halls and other screening venues across the country.”Said Simiyu.

In deed the two film-makers have kept the vision and laid the ground work. The film will premiere in Machakos People’s Park on the 5th of August 2016. Not only will this be the first feature film of national allure to premiere outside Nairobi, it will also be the first film ever, in Kenya, to show simultaneously in 8 counties from the premier date to the 7th of August, 2016. Logistically, this means that in future it will be possible to rank films according to box office performance.

What this also means is that Betty and Simiyu will inevitably  make a distribution channel which other film makers can follow later on. I love  that he stressed that the film will be of high quality. He expounded on how he would go about it:

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Mohammed Juma Said as Roba.

“Kizingo is a Kiswahili comedy drama about two bumbling thugs, KAUZI and ROBAA who lose their loot to two kids, SONI and JOHNI. Attempts to terrorize them and retrieve the loot turns into more comedy than horror. What is more , by picking children who have never acted on screen before, and mixing them with seasoned actors from Nairobi and Mombasa, the film not only aims at showcasing raw exciting  talent, but also creating partnerships between Nairobi and Coast film productions. Plans are also in place to work together with film producers in  Kisii, Embu, Nyeri, and the coast .”

In deed  the film is a good cocktail of stars and newbies. Evans Isaya, who stars in Sumu La Penzi and Lies That Bind as well as several Zamaradi films, and commercials, has a major role. Pretty Mutave who is based in Mombasa and  has built a following from the TV show, Arosto is also starring in it. Eleven year old Fatuma Ali and ten year old Jakes Israel are soon going to be the darlings of film. Other cast members include Muhammed Juma Said, Ali Shahibu and Julian ‘Mwazele Tindo’.

It is of course challenging to work with new actors whether young or old since acting is a profession as any other. But one could argue – or hope – that when you discover natural talent and place it in the hands of a creative and talented  director like Simiyu Barasa, magic is made;(remember Abraham Attah as Agu in Beasts of No Nation).I am positive that independent distribution is the way to go and Kenyans will later appreciate the trailblazing structures that this initiative will leave.

SAVE THE DATES !

Posted on

2nd forum final poster

We at An Actor Develops Studio are extremely excited about the next forum and workshop to take place this weekend- from the 6th to the 8th of May, 2016. I really don’t know how this idea first came about but it was definitely propelled by the feedback I got from the articles on this blog. I discovered that actors are willing to sharpen their craft, network and hope to leave this sector better than it was when they found it. Most actors can attest to the struggle to ‘join the club’. Up to the early 2000’s when I joined, it was not easy to have opportunities to work as a professional actor. Back then TV actors were gods (not that there was much happening on TV), theatre was still where the magic happened but the most available ones were set book plays. So do not get tired of listening to all this ‘old’ actors talk about how they started with doing set book plays.

It is therefore a delight to see presently that actors have more more choices of where to start from. I have met a few well known TV faces who confess to me that they have actually never been on stage even though they wish to. I believe different groups, companies and individuals have demystified the profession of acting and encouraged newbies to be optimistic about getting work. The growing demand by Kenyans to consume their own  media products has also enabled  TV stations to outsource more material from local producers hence create more work for actors. However these opportunities are still not enough to declare this an industry. Actors also feel locked –up in the rat-race instead of pursuing artistically gratifying projects.

It is therefore important that you as an actor contribute to the development of this sector. The era of assuming it is okay to let someone else fight for your battles is coming to an end. When you understand your contribution in the society and know your worth, you become more confident to demand for  better treatment.

An Actor Develops Studio promotes an informal environment where actors meet as peers and challenge as well as motivate each other. This  Friday forum is going to be fun simply because  the presenters are known to be of hearty personalities. Gerald Langiri (who stopped food jokes by the way) is witty and always knows how to break it down and make one feel appreciated. John Karanja has been a producer from zile ma days za Waridi and is extremely passionate about film. Melvin Alusa is stylish, intriguing and always brings the house down. Of course we will have zile typical wasanii arguments that I’m not going to even touch on this blog.

Still we are glad to see so much support from fellow actors who have either applied  for the workshops or promised to attend the forum. It makes a clear statement that we are ready to take charge of our destiny. So how about you turn up with your ideas, or just a listening ear and let’s help each other figure out this ‘thing’?

I’ll leave you  with copies  of two out of   forty feedback comments that were given to us by participants after the  previous event. See you on Friday!

“This was my workshop and I thoroughly enjoyed myself. The topic on character development was an ideal area to begin.I know I am work in progress and I know I have left with items or point that I will apply to my work . More group work would have been useful.” – Muthoni Gathaecha

“ Felt at home with all the talented actors in attendance. Learnt alone in the three days that would have probably taken me  five years to learn on my own. Hopefully if we have another workshop we could use mentor-ship from legendary actors like Ken Ambani” – Damaris Kaeche.

LOVE THY SELF AS YOU LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR

LOVE THY SELF AS YOU LOVE THY NEIGHBOUR

Simiyu BarasaSimiyu Barasa is not only a celebrated contemporary director and trail blazing indie, he is also a culture/identity activist. An analysis of his work reveal an advocate of creative approach on the discourse of  the Kenyan identity and self-appreciation.

One can therefore only imagine how long this perpetual issue of Nollywood-idolization boiled in his heart before he spat it out and the whole acting fraternity made a lurch. He did not mince his words on his Facebook post. Discussion was still on going by the time I left to think deeply about it.

Below is a copy of his admonition.

F Simiyu Barasa: Something is terribly wrong. A Nigerian actor has journalists chasing after them from the minute they land at JKIA while ours remain ignored. It is not right when our home stars have to beg for coverage while some not so impressive foreigner is over hyped. So bad is this that local actors themselves fawn over them. Taking selfies to social- media-prove to us that they too are big. You can’t be big if your self-worth is measured by another’s presence. Have some self-confidence and dignity. Taking selfies with a star doesn’t mean you are one, we know the suffering you go through here. Grow some dignity get your local game sorted and aim international so that when Naija actors land in Nairobi they are the ones ASKING to take selfies with you. Right, our media neglects you. But learn from Vera Sidika about branding and visibility. She is a masters level study on hard work to market her brand, whether you like her work or not. And yes, she is probably the only Kenyan who lands in Murtallah Mohammed airport and Lagos media runs to cover her. The few actors who get to media are few and far between, in fact last I saw was Nyasuguta on citizen nipashe. Apana! This country too has actors that can be covered every week. Personally the rare selfies I post are 95% Kenyan actors kenyan artistes coz tuji support more. like Kalamashaka said in ‘punchlines Kibao’ doggy za mtaa ingine hazieji kuja kojoa hapa…’ lazima pia sisi tuwafunge mabao tumeji-armie na ma punchlines kibao…(*Hounds from a different neighbourhood are not invited to take a pis in our hood . We too must score goals…we are armed with punchlines.) ..this is the country that gave us Maumau. Where did this independent, self-love, dignified spirit dwindle?

It is a common assumption that Kenyan media rarely considers its own talents worthy of celebrity status. Artists complain that one rarely gets coverage until he has either made news or won an award abroad. So much so that serious artists even include touring abroad as strategy to make news back home. This plan may work but most of the time it doesn’t.

I remember a while back when we were invited as a theatre group to represent Africa in a huge festival in India.  We asked TV stations to cover this story. Only one station replied. There was a catch though. For them to cover our story we had to pay air tickets for their journalists and pay for their food and accommodation in India. Keep in mind that this was going to be the first time boarding a plane for most of the cast members. In India we were instant celebrities. Our stage play was on prime time news, in all newspapers and by the time we were leaving, our faces were familiar in the Indian streets. Back in Kenya and we were nobodies, shoving through over- loaded matatus.

This experience gave me a tough lesson early in my career: For an actor, curtains will always fall, no matter how long your time on stage is.

Yet the question still remains. Who is responsible for our recognition and appreciation? The media as a business only sells what they believe will be bought. I however believe that Kenyan media has to play a larger role as this is an egg and chiken situation: We can’t be famous if people don’t watch enough of us on teli and people don’t want to watch us because we are not famous… yet again Nollywood was introduced to our people less than five years ago by the same media and quality was not an issue. We deserve the same opportunity.

Having said that, I believe actors must begin by appreciating themselves first. We must remember the now retired actors that once ruled the screens long before current stars like Jalang’o and Lydia Gitachu.

I will never forget one rainy morning, I saw an old man sitting at the back of a pick-up truck, his grey kangol hat shielding his soft head from the drizzle. A few people on the street cheered him. The tired man immediately wore a smile and waved back. I soon realized it was ‘Mzee Ojwang’. Many questions about this incident ran through my- mind including whether the driver was kind enough to give him a lift or mean to let our dad…one of the greatest Kenyan comedians ever – sit at the back of a pick – up truck in rainy weather.

The nucleus of the problem as Simiyu has pointed out is not the media or the people but we. During An Actor Develops Studio –forum that we facilitated a few weeks ago, I promoted the discussion on being called a celebrity. Most actors, I realized, still felt that being a celebrity is equal to being a famous spoilt brat. This is not necessarily true. As an actor you are an artist, entertainer as well as a leader. Many People will love and celebrate your work hence make you a celebrity and a role model. Quit the false humility and give a thank you back to your fans with humble dignity.

I say this because the problem of admiring other people more than ourselves begin by us not appreciating ourselves enough. We do not fight for each other enough and –to be honest- we only have each other’s back during funerals or medical needs. This is fine but we can do so much more. You can talk about your friend’s show until everyone in your timeline considers him/her a star. He or she ought to reciprocate. How about attending Kenyan cinema and theatre? Do not let quality be an excuse, I’d rather you go watch and afterwards complain to the producers, directors and cast. If they are wise they will accept your feedback and improve.

History has proven that victory is rarely given. You must demand what you believe in and what is rightfully yours. It seems clear to me that Kenyan actors have approached the gate of honor, recognition, financial freedom and appreciation. But alas it is locked! So you either bang hard until its open, knock it down if they refuse to answer or walk back and let the next generation start all over  again.

RIVERWOOD AWARDS & LESSONS FROM #OscarsSoWhite

RIVERWOOD AWARDS & LESSONS FROM #OscarsSoWhite

 

On the night of 12th March 2016

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Actor Gerald Langiri deals with press -two at a time – on the red carpet.

I let the lingering Chris Rock’s monologue twirl through my mind as I headed to the National Museum to catch a performance. I walked towards the Louis Leakey auditorium praying that I wasn’t so late as to miss the beginning of the show. How I hate that! Introverted voices from within had to hush as I used more focus on finding parking; but not before reciting Chris Rock’s most profound statement at the 2016 0scar awards: “…Well here’s the real question. The real question everybody wants to know in the world is: Is Hollywood racist? You know. You gotta go at that at the right way. Is it burning-cross racist? No. Is it “Fetch me some lemonade” racist? No! It’s a different type of racist…” I wondered how it would be received by our Kenyan acting fraternity and other stakeholders if an actor stood on an awards podium and instead of kupaka mafuta (oiling egos) get close and candid on matters that make actors not sit easy?

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Appie Matere, a prolific mainstream producer was present.

 

Familiar faces of actors greeted me outside the white tent. I’m always excited to see friends so I hardly noticed the red carpet and the screen projector set on the left hand side of the building. Soon my paranoia kicked in and I began to wonder why poetry show set-up would be decorated in this manner, with the voices of charming MC’s coming from the loud speakers? I also wondered if this is the kind of crowd that comes to a poetry reading? Not really – and especially not when everyone is dressed in pristine black and grey dinner suits only worn by actors when they are attending…damn! How could I have mixed up the dates?

After I realized what was happening, I began to take in the glamour and glitter attributed to a ceremony of this caliber. A table at the beginning of the alley way was occupied by black occasion dresses, speaking pleasantly to the guests and ushering them inside. The long red carpet diligently led to a photo section where momentarily important film practitioners were greeted by two chatty and welcoming MC’s, whose voices I had noticed earlier on, and a crowd of camera men quite eager to take their pictures. These things make actors feel good and appreciated. So, I loaded my camera and put it in front of my eyes. Through its lens I saw buoyantly posing actors whose hearts were enthralled and grateful that someone had prepared a prestigious event in their honor.

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From left: Actor/producer Kamau Wandungu , Actor/producer Naomi Kamau and producer Gathoni Kimuyu.

As I took a back seat and watched the event proceed, I wondered what was different this year at the Riverwood Academy Awards? First it goes without saying that the choice of venue helped to create an air of prestige. The Louis Leakey auditorium at the National Museum had enough space outside to set up additional facilities like the catering sector, extra tents, and a projector meant to assist with the over flow of attendees. Inside, the auditorium was classy and glamorously decorated with lots of ambience and a spacious stage.

Apart from the venue, there was a genuine interest in the actors by the organizers. The ushers must be given a ‘thumbs up’ as they appeared organized and simply happy to be there. I wasn’t even invited and yet the organizers treated me with appreciation and respect as an actor. I couldn’t help but imagine how much the nominees were being pampered.

A significant aspect of the awards was the presence of professional actors amongst them celebrities. The Riverwood Awards organizers seemed to realize that the industry could expedite its growth process by embracing the mainstream sector and therefore transform its image from this downtown tribal-homemade video business to a business where many more Kenyans appreciate and consume homegrown film products.

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Power-pose: Actors Joe Kinyua and Muthoni Thiong’o

I entertained the idea that just like an influential group of black American actors had protested to Hollywood, our own actors might have aired their views to Riverwood for these positive changes to be made. Perhaps the organizers inherently saw the need for this improvement after self-assessment and only harkened to sporadic feedback from actors.

All in all It makes me confident to disclose my reservation as I am hopeful that the Riverwood Ensemble might have taken notice too, so here we go: I was a bit disappointed –partly with myself- that I had not watched any of the films that had been nominated. Not one. I received messages from a few actors who were nominated asking me to vote for them. I could not do it simply because I had not watched any. I know it is not upon the ensemble in to ensure film distribution in its entirety but it is only fair that the nominated films are shown to the public or at least the fraternity. I propose that next time they have a showcasing week end right after announcing the nominations.

By that virtue I don’t feel qualified to announce the winner. You can find the list of awardees at http://www.actors.co.ke/en/mer/articledetail/763.

The Riverwood Academy Awards may have a long way to go but this ceremony proved that there is an audience and a market that appreciate Kenyan products and encourage actors to keep up their struggle for success.

On the other hand, the #Oscarssowhite ‘campaign’ which culminated in a racism-themed monologue by Chris Rock, also gave us important lessons in bravery, artists’ advocacy and oneness of voice. Black actors in America have made huge strides ever since they were allowed into the mainstream stage. Their success does not inhibit them to continue demanding for a fair playing ground in the American film and TV industry.

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Kibanda Pictures cast and crew had a reason to smile – Best Director, short film, actress, supporting actress.Martin Githinji,David Kariuki,Brian Elvis Muchara, May Wairimu.

What of us who only demand dignified treatment during awards… who only want at least sixty percent local content from international and local broadcasters…who want a structured welfare package? What of us who are determined to see the success of Kenyan theatre and film as a self-sustainable cultural element of our beloved nation?

NICE FIGHT FOR ACTORS

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If The Kenya National Theatre is the home for thespians in Nairobi, then the Alliance Francaise is their pub. A joint in which you will assuredly ‘bump’ into the artist you have been looking for. All you need is the right timing. Some like coming here at midday when they can be freely idle, jam or katiana until one day they manage to convince the management that they are indeed serious artists and deserve a free space, the Sauti Sol- ish kind of artists. Some also come in the evening to catch the latest plays or concerts as they have a beverage and flash their afro-centric fashion. The other group comes in the evening, walk-racing to go upstairs and try to begin rehearsals on time. This group is considered the ‘hustler’ type. Mostly familiar faces on film and TV yet with a strong desire to maintain their theatre connections.

It’s in this last group that I was sure to find Nice Githinji. Pinning her down had proved to be even more difficult than I had thought. Talking to Nice on the phone or in person leaves one with an “it’s done” mentality. However the girl is in demand and even making time for an old buddy doesn’t seem to work within her time schedule.

I look around me and ponder on the architecture of this building. I frown at the carton –box like designed building that hosts the busiest theatre in Nairobi. I wonder loudly why the architect saw the need of wrapping the building with railings painted in the same beige and grey colours as the building?

I’m unable to draw a conclusion as my thoughts are interrupted by the ever-present Nice. I could hear her small yet assertive voice as she explains something to her pal. She knows what I’m here for so she apologizes for not being able to answer the questions I had sent her as we hug. She then apologizes a second time as she is running late for a rehearsal. It’s her professional debut as a theatre director and what better place to begin from than the FCA, one of the most popular theatre groups in Nairobi. So if you want to see a ‘Nice’ version of The Diplomat’s Wife, go to Alliance Francaise on 25th -28th February 2016. I agree to wait for her so I watch her pass through security before I head to a new restaurant nearby that someone had encouraged me to check out.

Nice’s appearance stays with me for a while. Her glossy creamy and free dress enhanced her bubbly intelligent nature. She is the kind of person who can talk about world politics, romance, theatre and her family all at once. Don’t ask me how she does it. I recall an encounter with her, about six years ago. I hadn’t seen her for a while and when we bumped into each other I exclaimed,

“You’ve lost weight.”

Nice replied by reprimanding me for not being honest with her when she had added weight. This time I was glad she had maintained her slim curvaceous figure but I wasn’t going to  bring it up.  Nice is an objective free thinker and you can never truly guess how she would reply.

The change to our industry that she had promised to speak to me about was concerningNice makutano her victorious fight in convincing most theatre houses in Nairobi to subsidize tickets for actors so that the guild can encourage members to support one another by going to watch each other’s performances. I was also going to try and sneak a mini-interview.

I caught up with her again outside the Alliance Francaise. By now the new crescent like moon could be seen on the right side of the sky. People however ignored this enchanting enigma and continued as if it was just another street light in town. Many went in to catch a play as Nice and her friends came out. I said a quick Hi to the cast members I knew. Of course ‘quick’ is never quick enough. You have to hug the girls tightly, comment on their appearance in a charming manner and throw in a quick gossip over some event a few nights back with the boys.

I walk with Nice who looks as fresh as she had just woken up even after a grueling rehearsal. I was feeling tired and idle so to avoid feeling guilty about my appearance, I break the Ice by stating under a yawn,

“Nice name,” I try to smile smartly.“ I know right? I honestly have no idea why they called me Nice. I like to assume when they looked into my eyes they saw all the nice things that could happen in one’s life when you let life happen.”

Interesting philosophy, I think to myself. But I remember Nice Githinji as opinionated and always exploring the nature of the world. I’m tempted to invite her back to the restaurant I had tried out but there was nothing really to go back to. After all there is something about the small crescent new moon and talking to this lady whose lips volunteer a smile as quickly as they volunteer to tighten up, I offer her a take away coffee and a muffin as we sit on a metal bench right after the alleyway that connects Alliance Francaise to Koinange Street.

“Tell me about your love for photos and joy of posting on line…?” I ask her as I observe the gradual appearance of tiny stars in the night sky.

“Oh my word! I love photos. I love taking them. The posting part is not always so muchnice paint fun because I’m not exactly active on social media like whatsapp. I’m more of an observer unless something makes me feel ‘sum typa way.’ That said I like posting pictures when I want to. I have moments when I feel I have to because my work demands it and I still don’t do a very good job at it. I sell reality better than fiction. Social media is all about fiction.”

She notices that the stars jitterbugging above us take me and she watches as well. Her light skin and short curly hair glow in the streetlight. I look into the diamond pearl -shaped eyes and reckon she is nostalgic.

“Life is funny and interesting,” she exclaims matter of factly.

“A short while back, Planets Theatre performed at my high school and one of the actors was an alumni. I asked him how to get into professional theatre. He gave me his producer’s number, which I called soon after and by the next year I was on stage. At 18 I was doing travelling theatre and progressed to public shows three years after that (travelling theatre is so addictive!). A year or so later I auditioned for Better Days and the rest is history. Acting and I have had a very long, lustful affair.”

It’s amazing how she is able to sum up her preliminary acting experience in such a short statement. The truth is, Nice was immediately identified as a rising star in these travelling theatre groups. Even through the many ups and downs that are well known to this “ set-book” world, she overcame them and soon became a favorite with professional film and theatre producers and obviously has become a favorite house hold name in Kenyan theatre and film. She is the only actor who has a ‘celebrity’ effect on my siblings!

“What would you consider your biggest low in your acting career?” I ask, digging deeper.

“There are a lot of those, I can’t really pick one. Such is life. Fortunately, every low is followed by such a high in my life. It’s almost ridiculous. Ah! Here’s one. See my mom was always asking when I’d  finally get on TV for her to come and see me. By the time Better Days screened, she was gone. That sucks! She was  my only honest fan, family wise, I dare say.”

“Do you think if you were in a different country especially where film is celebrated that your celebrity status would have a much higher value?”

“Well, not necessarily.  I am sure I’d be making a butt load of cash though. So if being a celebrity is proportional to the money we earn, then yes.”

This opens up a voluntary school of thought that makes me go easy on my coffee.

“My business partner and I are constantly “stalking” Shonda, for good reasons of course. We completely idolize her. She said people are very creative within their fences because that way there’s no need to push boundaries. It’s a good and a bad thing but therein lays our problem. We don’t have fences here. We don’t know what is allowed and what isn’t because we’ll be viewed by a ‘diverse target audience’  as merely accepting violence or nudity   amongst other things. When done within it’s no longer seen as an expression (which is my idea of what art is) but we now look at the morality behind it. When you have creative fences that are clearly delineated, you come up with ridiculous angles for stories. Look at how many versions of medical or crime shows that exist abroad!  We do not take enough risks and our audience is not very accepting of our few trials and errors.”

I think about that as I stare at her unconsciously. Here is a woman who has defied all odds Nice with gunand stayed in the game. Her Nation advert on, ‘ Know the truth’ is big on TV and billboards. She has starred in popular shows like Better Days KTN, Guy Center NTV, Saints NTV, Changing Times, KTN, Makutano Junction, CITIZEN TV and Break Time show, NTV. Some of the films she’s been part of include Benta, House of Lungula and Lost in Africa among others. She has won several local awards. Yet her quest for success and vision for the Kenyan industry is still as fresh as a newbie.

I realize she has to go so I quickly ask her about the theatre houses that have agreed to subsidize rates for guild members.

“The theatre groups that agreed to allow members to watch shows at reduced costs and requirements are; Fanaka Arts, Strathmore, Culture Spill, Ikenia Arts, Phoenix theatre, Friends Ensemble, Heartstrings Kenya, Wholesome Entertainment and Liquid.  They all agreed to shave 50% off on tickets to members of the Kenya Actors Guild. The Festival of Creative Arts (FCA) agreed to 500 for guild members as opposed to 600 and 400 for groups of 40. Johari agreed to the 50% off on Saturdays at 3pm only.”

I watch as she relays this information passionately but impartially, then I hug her  and before I say good-bye I ask her a sincere question.

What would you say is an obligation to every Kenyan actor living in this era?

‘Say no to mediocrity!’. We have to push ourselves harder as actors.  If you’re comfortable, something’s wrong.”

Nice Githinji will be a member of panelist in An Actor Develops – studio debate:

(Why) Have the acting standards gone down?

Venue KNT

Date: 22/2/2016

TIME: 10 AM

FREE

Book now: 0716603866