She was sitting in the front row, in a metal desk, among a smattering of students, one of few when I was expecting many. It is hard to explain how amped up I was to teach my first class in Kenya, how nervous and excited, how fearful and confident. I was expecting 70 students on the first day, and there were only about two dozen who attended the first class.
Jean Akinyi impressed me on the very first day. I remember walking in to Harambee Hall, a cavernous and loud former dining hall that had about 300 steel desks filling row after row, brown and noisy and scuffed, and seeing Jean and Virginia in the front row. Very few students choose the front row. A front-row-sitter demands attention. She was a savior to me on that first day, when I recall sweat dripping down my large forehead. She was direct, engaged, and present and I was so grateful. And I saw a sparkle of wit in her eye hiding behind so much power. I was so lucky. I turned to her for help on the first day, and she proved to be someone I could lean on in a foreign place where I felt little support.
Jean was never absent. Jean was never late. She was never unprepared. Jean took her studies seriously, and demanded my attention. She has deep and serious eyes that twinkle with inner mischief. When she smiles it knocks you over.
Jean is coming to America.
He was also one of the few present on my first day of teaching. He is like a baby giraffe mixed with a baby gazelle; he is tall and funny and energetic and he romps through life with wide-eyed wonder. He is serious and motivated and criminally funny. He makes me laugh and laugh. His loyalty is unwavering.
I remember an early performance assignment in directing class, and Austin Opata played a mad witch doctor, and he walked with a stereotypical hunch and he was wickedly funny and exaggerated and bold. In the next assignment, he performed with clear-eyed presence, adjusting to the new assignment and dropping all the humour he so easily hid behind. He was powerful and present. I later learned that Austin has no intention of acting, although he is a natural. He is a film editor, a story-teller, a director, a film-maker extraordinaire who makes people’s work better with his creativity and vision. “Wow, sir, wow.” I hear his voice as I write this.
Austin is the one in a million who looked at me and said ‘Will you direct us in a theatre piece, sir?’ And I said YES, and my world shifted. I think Austin is a magician; he sparkles with mischief and magic. He makes me work and I like that.
Austin let us pour a glass of water over his head in every rehearsal and performance of Kumi Na Mbili.
Austin is coming to America.
Imagine the possibilities.