This is neither Mkamzee Mwatela’s first nor second appearance in Sarafina . It is her third time performing in this iconic South African play. But for Mkamzee, it’s just another day at the office. We were seated outside the Kenya National Theatre gallery. She explained how it felt being in Sarafina again.
“It feels like you’re playing a character. But this time with a different cast and the same script. It’s so beautiful and powerful. These kinds of live shows are never always the same.”
Sarafina means a lot to Mkamzee. She played the titular character back in 2003 in front of Leleli Khumalo herself (Sarafina 1992), and now playing Ms. Masembuko in 2018’s production and this year. Meeting Khumalo is when she first fell in love with the idea of a career in theatre. When ordinary civilians would probably be bowled over by playing a character in front of the original actor, Mkamzee took it as a sign. A stepping stone. And the Kenyan film, theatre and TV landscape will be forever grateful.
Mkamzee was born to a banker mother and teacher turned politician father.
“In fact that’s where I got my love for theatre from. My dad was a teacher at Saints [St Mary’s] and he took me to my first play.”
Her career trajectory would then take on a tangent suitable for a motivational speech tailor made for millennials under unimaginable pressure.
“I finished school, IB, in St. Mary’s in 2002. I worked in theatre for about four to five years until I turned 24. Then I decided to go to school abroad. That Kenyan thing of I must go and study. But I decided to come back in 2006.” She had to return. For many reasons- some of which were money and the other was primarily that, she just wasn’t into it.
Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o may have foreseen a future in which Kenya’s arts scene wouldn’t be the same without Mkamzee. The actor recounted a time Nyong’o once advised her to keep doing this back home because it would be flooded in the US market. The two were once schoolmates at St. Mary’s. Mkamzee shares that she would love an opportunity to work with Lupita.
“Of course I’d love to work with her,” she gushed when I asked, “I’d love to direct her in a film.”
The actor has directed a litany of films and even owns a production company. 8278A Film Studio is a boutique fiction film company that specializes in film, theatre, TV- with future plans to go into publishing and music. It’s no surprise she barely has time for social media.
“In fact there is someone impersonating me on Facebook. I don’t have a social media. She uses my name and has AIM Global in her bio.”
The already-proven multi-talented actor somehow made time for a few books though.
“It was the very first thing I did. We were on holiday, I was 13, and I wrote a whole book. Since then I’ve written like two books but they all remain unpublished.”
Mkamzee doesn’t lose sleep over her unseen manuscripts.
“I’m really into directing. I acted then I realized this can be a career then I realized I was a director when I met actors.”
It’s impossible not to imagine Mkamzee as an actor especially because of her most iconic role as Usha Juma from the NTV hit soap opera, Mali. She didn’t land there overnight.
“My very first role was in Better Days. I remember Valerie Kimani and I were Raymond Wafula’s whores in some hotel. After that I was in Siri- where I met Alison Ngibuini. After that I did Shuga and then finally landed in Mali in 2010.”
It wasn’t written in the stars though. Mkamzee was hesitant to play Usha. A woman who was remembered for her villainous role in trying to take her “share” of her late husband’s Sh600 million fortune. Usha was complex yet relatable and seductively unattainable.
Alison Ngibuini, Mali’s show-runner, specifically picked her for the role. Usha was her creation.
“She called me and told me ‘I want you to audition for the role of the second wife.’ And I was like, ‘Why would you do that to me?’. The role challenged me a lot when I got it.”
But Alison, a Mkamzee-whisperer, told her on the second week of rehearsals, “You need to understand there are no good people or bad people. Just good choices and bad choices. You need to figure out why this woman is making those choices.”
“I was always reacting, feeling insecure, feeling like everyone can see that, ”Mkamzee added.
If this was the secret to her successful portrayal of one of the most well-known female characters in modern Kenyan TV, it’s no surprise that Stuart Nash, director of Sarafina was eager to work with Mkamzee this many times. She was also an acting teacher with his company, and performed in Jesus Christ Superstar- another Nash production. Her theatrical career has been nothing short of illustrious. Having performed with theatre troupes with two Kenyan productions in Belgium, Holland and Denmark. Experiencing first-hand, the benefits of working with states that care about theatre.
“Europeans really enjoy theatre. A lot of South African theatre goes there because they subsidize it. We have played in theatres where the show before ours was Phantom of the Opera or Aerosmith.” Her face lights up as she adds, “[theatre] is a whole employable force. I’d love to see that here for people who love these arts but aren’t actors, directors or writers.”
The future Mkamzee envisions is nothing short of- well- visionary.
“We don’t realise how many jobs there are in theatre. We have to teach people how to watch art. St Mary’s would shut down for students and parents to watch musicals. The very first musical show put out was by folks from St. Mary’s. [It’s about] growing the audience to learn to consume art. But theatre is on an upward trajectory. The same way music once was.”
It still feels like theatre has a long way to go. Film and TV have been recently bolstered by the bubble of possibility that was created by Lupita’s Oscar and Kenyan films have gone on to win multiple international awards and nominations.
Mkamzee remarked, “All household names start from nowhere. Back then the ‘freedom’ you had was you were doing it for free or for love because there was no money or no Oscar. It’s a hard thing to want. Nobody really knows how to get there. You look at Samuel L Jackson and Bryan Cranston. That’s why I tell my students, I can’t help you become famous. The only thing you can control is how good you are.”
This may sound bleak to anyone feeling remotely aspirational but she had news for me, “You have to perfect yourself. But if we create more writers, more writers mean more scripts, more stories, more investors. That’s why my company invested in a writers’ room. If you have a good story though, you’ll get it made. Don’t be afraid to be wrong.”
Given how much passion and drive Mkamzee possesses, there couldn’t have been a better casting for the radical and passionate Miss Masembuko.
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