Nyokabi Macharia is a Kenyan, performer and all-around lover of life. You know those people who in their résumés have the description “works well under pressure?” She is one of them. Describing herself as a polymath, she thrives on the adrenaline rush of being involved in many things all at once.
Her energy is palpable even oceans away on our Zoom call, and as we quickly dive into the interview, we discover that we share the same alma mater, Daystar University. Born and raised in Nakuru, in a family of four, the talented actress had a normal upbringing and a career in the performing arts was never close to her mind. “My neighbors were lawyers and I saw how people held them in such high regard, so whenever someone asked me what I wanted to be, that’s what I would say.”
However, the dream of practicing law didn’t last long. In primary school at Carol Academy, her drama teacher Mr. Wenslauce Masinde was a man who took theatre very seriously and highly influenced her career choice. She would carry this on at the Moi Forces Academy, Lanet while pursuing her secondary education participating in Drama Festivals.
From Daystar University, Nyokabi graduated with a degree in Public Relations in 2017 but she easily admits that up until this point she hadn’t practiced in the field.
“I gained a lot of experience working for an events company which taught me about being detail-oriented, and managing a band helped me understand what it takes to produce a show. Other than that, all other skills like how to craft proper emails and front myself as a brand, I learned from my mother.”
Nyokabi was very active in school, taking every opportunity to get involved with as many extracurricular activities as she could – plays, concerts, musicals, if you can think of it, she probably did it.
Outside school, her most notable production was Jesus Christ Superstar produced by the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio in the year 2017. A few months later she was on a plane to the UK for what she now describes as an underwhelming experience of 6 months. “Honestly I wasn’t prepared for that trip. I didn’t have a work visa and I hadn’t thought about what activities I would undertake while staying there. Sight-seeing was out of the question since I was broke. It was also my first time experiencing racism and that chipped away at my confidence. In the midst of all that though, I secured an internship at the Omnibus Theatre which put up the show The London Eye which I was part of and was a great experience.”
The year 2018 was a turning point for her when she got cast as one of the leads in Too Early for Birds: Brazen Edition. The Too Early for Birds collective founded by Abu Sense and Ngartia put up “theatre productions retelling Kenyan history in dope ways.” This installment exclusively featured the little-known stories of six fearless women in Kenya’s history, such as Wangu wa Makeri, Field Marshal Muthoni and Mekatilili wa Menza who Nyokabi played. Opening night was the show that proved Murphy’s Law true, everything that could go wrong, did go wrong.
“I literally had a moment on stage where I blacked out – 5 seconds that to this day I cannot account for. I had a wardrobe malfunction on stage – I had a leso tied in the style of a tube top. I was dancing and all of a sudden felt a breeze. Unbeknownst to me, my boob was falling out. As if that wasn’t enough we were using playback and it froze, so there I was on stage not knowing what to do. I was crying in between my scene change, that show was a mess.”
As the adage goes, the show must go on, and the rest of the run went on without a hitch.
Just as she was wrapping up Brazen, the children’s pantomime show Tinga Tinga the Musical was opening. The show, produced by Sheba Hirst was first staged in 2016 and maintained only three of the original members for the 2018 edition. Nyokabi was cast as Giraffe and describes the experience as one where her value as an artist was well appreciated – especially monetarily. “It felt good to not worry about anything other than giving a good performance,” she says with nostalgia. “I hope that when I become a producer I can do the same for my actors,” she adds.
The show had a run at the New Victory Theatre in New York City, the only full-time Broadway theatre for children and families. She gained a new appreciation for how important structures and systems are even in the artist’s world which translates to a seamless workflow on and off stage.
They had a good reception in New York which proved that the work they put in was excellent and merited the favour and attention that they got from complete strangers.
It was Tinga Tinga’s director, Emmy Award-nominated producer and writer Claudia Lloyd who spotted her talent and recommended the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. ‘This was going to be my last attempt at auditioning for drama schools having been rejected the year before. If this didn’t go through I wasn’t going to apply again.” She had previously applied for two schools, Arts Educational Schools and Mountview Academy, both drama schools in London. The former had rejected her application and Mountview was willing to only take her on for acting, while she wanted to study Musical Theatre.
Getting her to school literally took a village: Claudia coached her dramatic pieces, while the assistant choreographer on Tinga, Greg Njoro helped with her dance pieces. Eric Wainaina, a seasoned musician and her friends, Nechesa Odima, a music teacher and Andrew Tumbo of Spellcast Media KE, helped with her vocal pieces. After the rigorous work, she sent in her submission and waited.
After the high life of Tinga, work was not coming her way as she had thought after the experience. People in the industry thought they couldn’t afford her anymore and so it was a godsend when she auditioned and booked the lead role on a local TV series MaEmpress, in February 2019, produced by Philit Productions.
Around the same time, she got the news that she had been accepted to school. The timing was perfect because she now had means to pay for her tuition. “I thanked God that two great opportunities had come my way, things were finally looking up.”
But wait, how could she be in a TV series in Kenya while she is going to school in the UK? A hard situation to find oneself in but one many actors wouldn’t mind to be in. Nyokabi decided that she’d film and then leave for school after they wrapped. All systems were ready to go until as a matter of courtesy, she informed the producers of her plans to leave for school.
“We were to wrap in July and school was in September so I didn’t think it would be a problem. However, for continuity of the story my character was potentially needed to appear for another season. I was crushed but I understood when the producer told me they would have to rethink my involvement in the project. Those were the longest two days of my life: having to decide between going to school or deferring and staying on for the show where I could make some decent money. After talking to a friend of mine about the situation, I decided to go ahead with school whatever the producers decided.”
Luckily for her they decided to work with her and she wrapped all her scenes in good time. In September 2019, she was back in the UK a different Nyokabi – older and with more experience and confidence. And with a plan. Until of course, Covid-19 struck. “My program was in Musical Theatre and only a year long, and all of a sudden we now had to learn remotely. It was depressing and it took me a while to get into the new normal but our facilitators were wonderful and they did their best under the circumstances.”
The National Theatre, UK had started uploading past shows and it was then that she encountered Frankenstein. She was particularly enthralled by Benedict Cumberbatch’s interpretation of the creature and started pondering about how a piece like this would be interpreted by a female cast.
Her lecturer encouraged her to make this her thesis and she swiftly enlisted her Kenyan friends who were also performers to help with her Frankenstein interpretation titled A Book and its Cover. She described the show as a “flop.”
“I don’t think it dawned on me that this was my first time directing. I stepped into it like a pro; I never doubted anything I was doing. People’s reactions afterwards however showed me that perhaps I wasn’t all that. If a review was written on it, I think it would have destroyed me.”
What would have dissuaded others from trying again spurred her into doubling down, participating in online shows that were separate from her schoolwork.
Nyokabi Macharia in The Plaza by Royal Central School of Speech and Drama (Photo Courtesy: Patrick Baldwin)
She got involved with the group Balcony Arts and together they put out two theatrical productions over Instagram Live.
“It was exciting having the challenge of creating, writing, directing and performing pieces in a week’s time. Aside from that it wouldn’t cost us much to use the platform and it was an opportunity to tap into a new audience.”
The group also encouraged collaborations from different parts of the world, which added to the richness of the work.
She pushed herself further to put up her first one-woman show titled Actors Anonymous. Again, she assembled a team from Kenya and the UK to create it and the show premiered on 5th February, 2021 to favorable reviews from a newspaper and blog, both based in London. The show revolved around a support group meeting for aspiring actors in London – all the participants were played by Nyokabi. The most touching sentiments after the show were from fellow actors with whom the message of the piece resonated.
“What my team and I hoped we could achieve, especially for other creatives, was not only give them joy ,but help them feel seen and encourage them that if we could do it, so could they.”
As we near the end of the interview I cannot help but applaud her can-do attitude. Despite her sunny disposition, I gather that her experiences thus far have tempered her out in a way that will no doubt add to her future pursuits as a thespian. From our conversation, it is evident that her time away from home as a student at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama at the University of London has grown her in leaps and bounds.
Curious to hear more I ask, “What has your time at school taught you about yourself as Nyokabi, as well as you as the performer?”
She ponders this question as she carefully pieces her response, slowly talking through each point.
“I’ve learnt not to rely on affirmation but know that I am good. I’d be at a ballet class for instance and expect to get a pat on the back for improving and feel deflated when that didn’t happen. I needed to stop doing what I am doing for the acknowledgement of it; it needs to be for me, for my own progress. During the show Actors Anonymous I realized that I get distracted by positive affirmation. You start feeding the audience what they want, even forgetting lines, but now I am learning to preserve that excitement to make sure it’s not overshadowing the performance.
I never doubted that I was meant to be doing this, but an incident that I had in my first week broke me. Seeing others excel in something you are not good at and that you can’t learn overnight is very uncomfortable, but I appreciate how repeatedly being in that position forces you to grow.” It seems to dawn on her as she speaks how far she has come.”
And one of the biggest lessons?
“I have learnt people who have the best intentions for you will not seek to tear you down. It’s also taught me to be more sensitive when giving feedback to others – to recognize that every artist has an instinct and the best you can do is help them direct that instinct to be executed more effectively.”
Now that she’s done with school and with the strict lockdown measures in the UK, she has decided to come back home.
On what to look forward to in 2021, she has a couple more productions coming up with the team at Shorts from Africa. She would love to collaborate with more artists from other countries, if not physically then virtually, citing the rich cultural exchange as a huge plus to her work. Most importantly she affirms, “I’m available to work!”
Sakina Mirichii is a lover of the arts and is engaged in film and theatre sometimes as a writer, actor and producer. She runs Sanifu Productions together with her husband, Justin and has trained as a Children’s Drama Teacher. When she isn’t binge-watching movies and series, she enjoys experimenting with new recipes to feed her ever-present appetite.
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.