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 concerning 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 much 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 and 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?
TIME: 10 AM
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