When Lupita Nyong’o, in a dazzling “Nairobi blue” dress, won the Oscar for best supporting actress, she validated the dream of every Kenyan actor who has ever fantasised about summiting the dizzying heights of success. Afterall, she is “one of us” and if she can do it, why not I?
Two years on and Lupita continues to “awaken the force” in mega-buster movies, grace the cover pages of upmarket glossies and represent top cosmetics firms.
Granted, Lupita is the first indigenous black African to have snagged the most prestigious film award on the planet. And it would be easy to think that she is the only Kenyan artiste to have achieved success overseas.
Yet there are a number of lesser known, highly talented Kenyans who are pushing the boundaries in film, dance, music and theatre abroad. They have journeyed the tough road of performing arts, and their stories are a testimony to what’s possible and how.
Wanjiru Kamuyu is a professional dancer and choreographer based in Paris. She has been dancing since childhood, when her mother put her into a ballet class in Standard Two.
“I knew from the moment I was in my first class that I was going to do this for the rest of my life. I knew this at a very young age,” says Kamuyu, who has a Master of Fine Arts from Temple University, Philadelphia USA.
Before moving to the United States, her mother’s country of birth, in mid-high school, Kamuyu grew up on the faculty housing at the Kenyatta University where her father lectured. She was part of a youth group that put on shows every holiday.
“I choreographed, danced and sang in the productions. It was really fun,” she recalls.
Irungu Mutu landed into an acting career in a round-about way. He remembers a stage experience at primary school in St Mary’s School, Nairobi.
“When I was eight, I played a shepherd who was getting harassed by a bee,” he said.
In secondary school he was an ensemble member in a play, before moving the US to complete his schooling. And even though he took “a really fun” introductory acting class in high school, he still decided to enrol for undergraduate studies in zoology.
Within the first semester at university, he realised that he much preferred his liberal arts classes to the sciences.
“I decided to take it seriously, and switched from being a zoology major to a theatre major, and got accepted to a theatre conservatory school,” said Irungu, who has a Master of Fine Arts in Acting from the University of California, San Diego.
Peres Owino’s first foray into acting was when she was forced to audition for the drama club at Loreto High School, Limuru (LHS).
“LHS was a formidable force in the Kenya Drama Festivals. If you go on YouTube and Google the Sibuor Saitan dance, we did that back in ‘92. That’s me as the lead warrior.”
Her compulsory beginnings blossomed into a lifetime ardour for acting.
“I get to play,” said Owino quite simply. “How may people can say that about what they do?”
Her playtime has taken her to interesting playgrounds since graduating summa cum laude, the highest distinction, in both Theatre and Performing Arts, and Social Change and Development, from the University of Wisconsin.
She starred in the movie The Call (2012), and is the co-writer/producer of the award-winning TV movie Seasons of Love (2014), co-written with Sharon Brathwaite.
Through her company Nyar Nam Productions, Owino directed and co-produced Bound: Africans versus African-Americans (2014), an acclaimed documentary that reviews the often strained relations between the two communities in the US. And most recently, Owino was one of a select few to take part in a 2015 writers’ lab for women launched by the doyen actress, Meryl Streep.
Film actor Owiso Odera was born in Sudan to Kenyan parents, and now lives and works in California. He has starred in several films and TV series, including the role of Papa Tunde in The Originals, a spin-off of the popular television drama series, Vampire Diaries. For Owiso, drama began as a childhood pastime.
“It seems like I have been doing it most of my life. As a child, my sisters and I would perform for my parents and friends after dinner,” he said.
High school exposed him larger audiences.
“I was fortunate to have been at St Mary’s School in Nairobi at a time when its music and theatre programmes were arguably at their peak. More importantly, I had the opportunity to write plays both on my own and in collaboration with other students.”
The predicament facing many aspiring artistes is how to turn their passion into a viable profession. This was Owiso’s dilemma, and subsequently he went on to major in the more pragmatic field of computer studies at Edmond College in the US.
But his passion for acting never faded, and, after graduating, he moved to New York City and trained at an acting studio for one-and-a-half years before going on to work in small theatres around the city.
Following a six-year stint, he “felt the urge to get a graduate degree in theatre. I would say that was the best decision I ever made for my acting career.”
He graduated with a Masters of Fine Arts in acting from the University of California, San Diego.
New York, Los Angeles and Paris are worlds away for many Kenyans yearning to make it big in Hollywood and Broadway.
Owiso counsels caution. “Do not rush to come to the US; build your resume. If you can leave Kenya with some projects under your belt, you will have a better entry point here.”
Modern technology now means that one can record an audition and e-mail it to anywhere in the world.
He also recommends acquiring a range of skills. “Learn how to be on a set, how to work on camera, what level of emotional and physical performance is ideal for film.”
As an example, Lupita took an undergraduate degree in film studies and her first blockbuster movie experience was behind the cameras on the production set of The Constant Gardener, which was filmed in Kenya.
Owiso adds, “Perfect your American and/or British accents to avoid being cast in limited roles.”
For students applying to American universities, Owiso advises them to look for institutions offering a Bachelor or Masters degree in Fine Arts. He emphasises that it’s never too late to get more training.
“Nothing will serve you better in this business than solid theatre-based training,” Owiso says.
Earning a living
After graduating from university the next challenge is how to earn a living. The irregular nature of work contracts means that artistes must find other jobs until it is possible to live solely on art.
In Irungu’s words, the trick is “finding a job that pays you well enough to live, and gives you enough flexibility. So if you have to leave town to shoot a TV show, film or do a play, it won’t be an issue.”
This is what he calls “balancing art and commerce, both on and off stage.” Another difficulty, according to Irungu, is “getting your name and work seen by as many people as possible.”
A trait that all the four artistes exhibit is versatility in their careers. Peres, who is also fluent in Kiswahili and Luo, is a seasoned screenwriter. She particularly enjoys penning African characters or women over the age of 40 because “they don’t give a s**t and I like characters that are who they are.”
Owiso is interested in all mediums of quality film and stage acting, but admits “I do find more fulfilling, challenging and well-rounded roles in the theatre than on television or film.”
In 2015 he was nominated for the Lucille Lortel Award for Outstanding Actor for his role in the Rwandan-based play, Our Lady of Kibeho.
Wanjiru is a dance trainer and has taught in and around Europe, America, Kenya, and South Africa. Through her dance company WK Collective, she produces theatre works and engages in community project performances.
“Dance, as with any other art form, has many career avenues beyond the stage,” she says. “For example, choreography, teaching, dance therapy, activism through dance, arts administration, dance agent, dance critic, dance company board member.” The list is endless.
Drama is Irungu’s preferred genre, although he has also played bit parts in films and TV shows.
I’ve done a bunch of musical theatre, some comedy, a little clowning and a few experimental performance pieces,” he said.
Audition rejection is the bane of every performing artiste, unless you’re famous enough to pick and chose your own projects.
Lupita has been quoted as saying, “As actors, you become an expert at starting over.” Owiso acknowledges that it’s tough, “however, you have to learn to not take it personally when you are rejected.”
Then, once the money comes in, one should manage it prudently because only a few artistes become millionaires.
“Invest a percentage of your earnings for periods when you will gain less income and for retirement,” advises Wanjiru.
Stereotyping of roles for black artistes is another unfortunate reality. Owiso describes the challenge as having to balance between enough work contracts while avoiding or confronting stereotypes.
“I have had to walk away from a potential opportunity because it is not the story I am interested in telling,” he said.
For women of colour, the situation is even more hackneyed. In 2015, Viola Davis became the first African American to win an Emmy award for best actress in a TV drama series. In her acceptance speech she stated bluntly, “The only thing that separates women of colour from anyone else is opportunity. You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there.”
At the end of the day, artistic success boils down to the individual and to possessing some key qualities.
“Just like any industry, talent is your bedrock and persistence the pillars that hold you up,” says Peres. “But the walls and roof is 100 per cent relationships [with] mentors and people who believe in you.”
A career in the performing arts is not for the faint hearted or seekers of quick wealth. It requires solid conviction, a willingness to labour for years, and a thick-skinned personality to withstand the knocks and setbacks.
Peres states candidly, “Be sure it is what you are called to do. This only works if you don’t have a plan B.”