To be in Kenya, in Nairobi, for the first ever Academy Award acting win by a black African actress from Kenya while working in the only theatre and film department of its kind in Kenya was a dose of unexpected Kenyan joy and pride today. Kabisa! (Excellent!)
“No matter where you’re from, your dreams are valid.” –Lupita Nyong’o
But students who will graduate from Kenyatta University with a degree in Theatre Arts and Film production do not step into the arms of a welcoming industry asking ‘tell me your dreams.’ There is no industry. This generation will need to make an industry. No one is dreaming for them, economically or artistically. I feel the energy of a burgeoning industry all around me, but it will need government incentive and investment to become a viable reality.
Most students lack parental support. Parents lie and tell their friends their children are at University to be engineers and lawyers and doctors, ashamed that they are at Kenyatta University studying theatre and film. Many refuse to offer tuition support. Some turn their backs completely on their children. And still their children dream.
I want you to know that in Kenya to have such a dream has a cost. It is easy to say ‘dream your dream’, but the harsh realities have a cost. These students are brave heroes. This is what I hear: “Actors are thugs.” This is a common perception in Kenya: “Theatre is for crooks, for lazy people, for drinkers and drug users.” “Acting is not a real job.” My students tell me, “That mentality has to change.” And they have to develop the fortitude to change it themselves, which will take time. And support.
News about Lupita was on everyone’s lips today. The nation was beaming. She is more than front-page news, filling the Daily Nation with article after article after article in every section. I heard her name on the radio all day long. In one story a young actor in Nairobi talked about the ‘rock’ outside the Kenyan National Theatre where they remember Lupita sitting as she waited for an audition. The President of the country has also sat on that rock. If he sat on that rock he hoped he might be as successful as Lupita Nyong’o, not the President.
What a representative she is. Her performance, her first real film performance at age 30, is a master class in commitment, focus, heartache, and bravery. I think of the scene where she is beaten for wanting soap and I hurt. She transcended the role and immersed herself in a place where Americans need to sit and feel uncomfortable. Her compassion is a beacon. We can afford to shed more tears. She is so beautiful, so poised, so authentic. May her future burn bright.
I pray to the gods that she is like a stone cast in Lake Victoria, and that the ripples begin to spread, to wash onto the shores of Kenya, to provide more than dreams for the students I am teaching. May this feeling of pride, for an actor, who found success on the world stage, last longer than one day.
May their stories and dreams find fertile ground on which to land.