In 1997, a teacher walked into a class 5 at St. Anne’s Girls’ primary school in Nairobi, with one goal in mind. She looked around, pointed at one tall girl, asked her to step out of the classroom and head over to the school hall. The girl had no clue why, but thought, that she had maybe done something wrong and was about to be punished for it.
“Walk like a freshly circumcised boy!” The teacher asked the girl.
The young extremely introverted girl, who had no idea how to walk like a boy, let alone walk like a circumcised boy, was required to play this role in an upcoming Kikuyu cultural circumcision folk song. Unknowingly, she unleashed the actor in her, did the role justice, and became part of the performing group. The girl would later learn the teacher chose her for her stone-faced look. Marrianne Nungo was the girl’s name.
20 years later, the young girl, now a grown woman, would get a lead role in one of Kenya’s best movies ever made, Supa Modo.
On the day of this interview, I meet Marrianne Nungo at Java, Sarit Centre in Westlands, over a cup of coffee. It’s raining heavily and she informs me that she won’t make it on time, thanks to heavy traffic. Nairobi gets like this every time it rains. As I wait for her, I remember the first time we met.
My first encounter with Nungo was an interesting one. I met her mid 2017, on the set of an upcoming TV series, The System. I was handling the series’ script continuity as an assistant, and she was one of the cast. We met on a scene where she was required to cry. On this day, however, her tears failed her.
“I never struggle with emotions. That day was unique.” She tells me later when I ask her about this incident.
The series’ director, Jesse Kyallo, asked me to do the unthinkable. He instructed me to give Nungo a heavy slap on the face, to prompt her tears. I had never slapped anyone in my life before this, and thus didn’t know just how intense my slap would be. But if my dad’s slap was anything to by, I knew that I would get the job done.
Slap. Nothing. No tears came.
Anyway, she eventually ended up crying, just not from my slap which, by the way, left my palm hot.
“That slap was heavy and painful! I just wasn’t emotionally prepared and not even your slap was going to make me cry.” Nungo tells me.
3 weeks before this interview, Supa Modo premiered in Kenya at the Nairobi Film Festival. In this film, Nungo plays the role of the protagonist’s mother. She plays a 50 year old woman, Kathryn (Nungo is only 31), who is grieving her child’s illness and coping with this in the only way she knows best; a way that not everyone approves of, not even her own daughter. As she tells me later, the role was tough.
“To play Kathryn, I had to become her and think like her; why would she do this? Why would she say this? Because her words are not just mere words, there’s always subtext or a meaning to them. I had to understand her mind first, in order to understand why she acted the way she did and dealt with situations the way she did. These things help you respect a character, and put you in a position to make the audience understand her too.”
To achieve this, she read the script several times and took time alone, every chance she had. This way, she was able to listen to Kathryn and bond with her.
In Supa Modo, Nungo executes her role in such a brilliant way that everyone who watches the film relates to her character. This is proof enough that she is one of the best actors in Kenya.
When she arrives, she takes me through the journey of how it all started.
“After my ‘circumcised boy’ performance, I didn’t participate in any other drama stuff until high school where I participated in a Swahili music and dance performance. But even then, I made sure I was on the last row, hiding behind everyone else.”
Why? Because she was still an extreme introvert and being in the front didn’t go well with her nature.
After high school, she was not fortunate enough to join university. She worked as a waitress as she tried to figure out what the next phase of her future would be. It was during this time that a friend suggested something that would go a long way to curve her career path.
“A close friend suggested that we (my 2 friends and I) visit a producer friend of hers at the Kenya National Theatre. The said friend would cast us for set book performances. Luckily or unluckily for us, casting had already been done and performances were already ongoing.”
Luckily, Nungo and her friends came across DaFactory Club, an arts platform under the Kenya Performing Arts Group or KPAG. This was a platform for artists to showcase their talent. KPAG sourced an audience for you and all you had to take to the platform was your talent. The best thing about this platform is you received positive critique from the audience and this helped hone your skills. Nungo met people like Johnson Mwakazi and Eko Dydda on this platform, before they made it big in their respective fields.
‘DaFactory Club was tailored more towards dance performances and we decided to introduce something a bit different in the form of drama. We would write, direct and perform skits in front of audiences through this platform.”
And this became the routine for Nungo and her friends for a while until one day when an old childhood friend, Elli Young, spotted her and introduced her to Eric Ndung’u of Fanaka Arts. This introduction led to her first (of many) role and first paying job in theatre. But it didn’t come easy.
“On my first day of rehearsal with Fanaka Arts, I tried to talk but alas! Nungo could not talk. Fear took over and my voice was gone.”
Despite having performed skits before, the introvert in her took over and she became tongue-tied. But that’s the thing with introverts. They are free and social in familiar crowds, but place them in front of new crowds, and it’s almost as if they are back to their childhood days before they learnt how to talk.
However, with time, she overcame this fear. And then, two beautiful things happened.
“These rehearsals acted as a way of shortlisting people too, and every day, one person would be cancelled from the list. The role I was rehearsing for was very minor and I only had one line to say. This fact, combined with my loss of voice on my first day, were signals enough that there was no way my name would make it to the end.”
But in what she terms as God’s doing, her name was never cancelled out. But, it was always the last name called, just before the name of the cancelled person’s name.
“Every day, it was my name, followed by the name of the cancelled person. This I can only describe as God’s doing, bearing in mind that some of these people were even more qualified than I was.”
The line she had to say was from the book Coming To Birth by Marjorie Oludhe Macgoye. It’s a line from a funeral scene where someone announces to the crowd, “People, gruel is ready”. This is all she needed to say and she did for the next 2 months and 2 weeks. Sometimes she would go for an entire week without saying it, if they didn’t get to that bit of the book during rehearsals, but she never missed rehearsals nevertheless. She was determined and her determination paid off.
2 weeks to the opening of the show, the main character for all three set books, that they were rehearsing for, got a better paying job and left the production. And for lack of ‘otherwise’ the director, on getting the news of the main cast’s exit, told the stage manager, ‘Patieni hiki kidame, hatuna otherwise’. The said ‘kidame’ was Marrianne Nungo, and she overheard the conversation. And just like that, Nungo came from an extra character in only one book, to a main cast in three set books.
This was exciting and scary for her, especially because she would lose her voice often and fail to deliver in the best way. But one person, Peter Oketch or PRO, who was also part of the group, held her hand and encouraged her, telling her that all would be well. Everyone else in the group kept asking the director that her new role be given to someone else since she could not deliver and this would affect the production. Their concern and reasons were valid; she wasn’t the best suited for that role. But something happened that changed everything.
“On the day of the first performance, when I got on stage, suddenly my small voice changed into this huge voice. A new wave of confidence swept through me. I felt something similar to the feeling I had when I did the ‘circumcised boy’ role, back in class 5. Everyone, including myself was surprised. They all rushed to watch me because they couldn’t also believe what was happening to me. Afterwards, there was no going back. I became this confident and loud performer. Naomi, art gave me a voice and confidence.”
After this, Nungo knew that her heart was fully in the arts. She now desired to be cast for public shows. Her first public show in theatre was Black Maria Stripper. It became the first of many and opened new doors for her including TV and film. Her most memorable play is Killing Time, which she played alongside Kenyan film director, Gilbert Lukalia. She talks about this play with a lot of excitement in her voice and face.
“Killing Time has to be my best play to date. Especially because I got the chance to play alongside my mentor, Gilbert Lukalia. This is someone I looked up to. Still do. It was a 2-man show and I was honoured that he chose me to play alongside him.”
Her first role on TV was a background extra role in the Kenyan TV drama series Makutano Junction.
In those days, the filming of Makutano Junction took place in Limuru. Together with other actors from the Kenyan National Theatre, Nungo would travel to Limuru to try her luck.
“Casting was done at the gate of the filming location. The gate would be locked and we stood outside hoping to be picked. Someone on the other side would handpick some and the rest would have to go back to wherever they came from and try their luck the next time. I was lucky to be picked.”
She recalls going through this struggle with actors like James Irungu, Maina Olwenya and Veronica Waceke. They all had an upper hand since they were Kenya National Theatre actors; those were always given the first priority.
The feeling of watching herself on TV for the first time was indescribable. She called friends and family to tune in when the episode finally aired.
“It was amazing! My mum felt so good.”
She gave this role her all. It didn’t matter that she was just a background extra. This reminds me of Hollywood actress, Taraji P. Henson. In her book, Around The Way Girl: A Memoir, she talks about her first role as an extra in a movie. She prepared for it like she would a major role. Her goal was to be the best extra Hollywood had ever seen. I mention this to Nungo who tells me that she has read the book and finds it so motivating. That it doesn’t matter what role you are playing, just give it your best and hope that it pays off.
And it indeed paid off for Nungo. Later, she would be cast for a supporting extra role in Makutano Junction.
Her first lead role on TV came through a theatre play called Edufa, produced by Gilbert Lukalia. A TV producer, Mary Migwi, who was part of the audience, loved her performance and invited her to audition for the lead role for an upcoming TV series.
“She told me it’s either I get the lead role or get nothing at all. There was no other role for me.”
Needless to say, she was cast for the role. It was for a TV series on Kenya’s NTV, Guy Centre in 2009. Later, she was also cast for the Kenyan TV series, Lies That Bind. This role, she says, was her longest on TV up to date.
The fact that theatre gave her a voice and landed her, her first role is the reason she treasures theatre more than TV. For her, stage plays are the foundation of her work as an actor. They have molded her to the actor she is today.
“Stage plays instil a discipline in you. You only have one shot at a scene on stage. You mess it, that’s it for you. There is no room for several takes until perfection, and there’s no editor to fix things in edit.”
This discipline that she has acquired over years of acting in theatre played an integral part when it came to Supa Modo. She was cast in the last minute and had less than a week to prepare for her role as Kathryn.
I ask her about how she landed the role.
Supa Modo is a story idea by Likarion Wainaina. Before the feature film, he made a short film for the same and Marrianne Nungo was cast in the short for the same role. And when Supa Modo came along, she was invited to audition by Kamau Wandung’u, after the production auditioned for the role unsuccessfully.
“I was delighted to take up the role. First, because the story is very beautiful and moving, and second, because Likarion Wainaina is such a great director. He is a visionary director. He aligns your act and always keeps you in perspective. Likarion knows what he wants in a film and how he wants it.”
She attributes her exemplary performance in Supa Modo to her years of working in theatre, and Likarion, for being a very helpful director.
But of course she does not use the word, exemplary, when I ask her what she thinks of her performance in the film. She is too humble to use it. Nevertheless, she is proud of how the film turned out.
“As an artist, I am my own biggest critic. I never feel as though I have given enough. But when I get calls from people telling me how they loved my performance in the film, and how the film took them through this rollercoaster of emotions, it feels great. It makes me proud that together with everyone else involved, we made such a beautiful film.”
Supa Modo has so many beautiful scenes, but I want to know what her most memorable one is. If you haven’t watched the film, I would advice you skip this part.
“It has to be the scene where Jo dies and the bedroom scene where Mwix and I are mourning her. Every fear and every emotion that I had bottled up came to life. Remember, Jo dies, just about the same time that Kathryn decides not to mourn her any more. Kathryn has just decided to enjoy the little time she has left doing what makes Jo happy. This scene was emotionally demanding, and the fact that we had to do it over and over again was tough for me. I could feel Kathryn’s pain all too well.”
And just as with Kathryn, life has not been all smooth for this talented actor.
Nungo was born 31 years ago. Like most children, she had a comfortable but not too comfortable childhood. She was an extreme introvert and making friends was a hard task for her.
Below: Nungo’s showreel
“She was a loner and kept to herself most of the time. But she was a very responsible child. She still is. Always made sure that everything was in order.” Her lovely and jovial mum tells me over the phone.
Somewhere along the way her mum was retrenched and had to move back to the village. Nungo found herself sharing a 2-bedroomed house in Highrise, with her younger sister, a pal and 11 other tenants, without the landlord’s knowledge; 9 in the living room, 3 in the bedroom and 2 in the other room. The kitchen and bathroom were shared. But this isn’t even the worst part. The worst came when the landlord found out and they were all given less than a day to move out. Nungo, her sister and the pal found themselves homeless. They camped inside one of the ‘Fish and Chips’ joint in Nairobi town for the better part of the day until late into the night when a friend came to their rescue. The friend offered them a place to stay until they got back on their feet. She was 22 years old then and was working on the play, Edufa. This, she says, was a scary experience for her.
It’s amazing to learn that despite all these challenges early in her career, she still managed to work her way into this amazing actor we see today. Even when the pay was not good, her passion for arts kept her going forward.
“The pay was not very encouraging in my early days. But I love the progress we’ve made as an industry; we are not yet there but we have made progress.” She tells me when I ask her how the growth has been in terms of payment; what she made then, and what she makes now.
In the near future, she would love to become a producer. Her motivation?
“I believe and know that actors can be treated better and offered better working terms. I want to make this happen. As a producer, I will be able to do this for both cast and crew.”
Better working conditions and terms in the Kenyan film industry is something Nungo holds dear in her heart. She still talks about it in length when I ask her about the legacy she wants to leave behind.
“If EVER, actually no, WHEN God makes me a billionaire, I will do my best to change the face of actors. I, NUNGO, will send actors abroad and educate them fully, expecting nothing in return. It will be my joy to work alongside actors who have received the same set skills as I have. Knowing that I helped an actor receive the best training there is will give me so much satisfaction. I want to be known as the actor who helped educate other actors and changed the image of actors in Kenya. I pray to God that I never forget this.”
She would also love to be a director; to explore and help actors bring out their best. To prepare for this, she has directed 2 skits in her church, as part of an acting mentorship program, which she says “wasn’t bad. It was a good beginning”, as she laughs.
Throughout the interview, I notice that God comes up in most of Nungo’s references.
“She loves God. Very much. And she is very prayerful. She prays more than me. I could say that she keeps our small family together through her prayers.” Her mum tells me.
I ask Nungo about this.
“Everything I do, it’s for God. I would never do anything that does not please my God. Even as an actor, I pray that every project I work on is for the glory of God. He has been gracious to me and the only way to thank Him is by pleasing Him in every way.”
The future looks brighter for Nungo and I want to know if she has any upcoming projects.
“For now, I have dreams. (laughs) I am preparing for a role that involves action stunts. I’ve been working out through dancing, because I need to be physically fit. How, when or where this opportunity will come from, I have no idea. But I’m preparing for this role nevertheless. I’m putting my faith to work. I believe this role will come.”
So, if you are out there and have such a role for your upcoming film, look no further. Marrianne Nungo is ready to start.
Marrianne Nungo’s career at a glance
Feature Films: Supa Modo, (AMOF Films): Clandestine, Mama Soko, A Room With A View, Project Revenge, Catching The Mirage
Short Films: Let This Be A Warning, My Faith, Before And After, She Was A Good Woman
TV Series: The System, The Wives, Tuko Macho, Rush, Lies That Bind, Machachari, Vioja Mahakamani
Theatre: V-Monologues, Nuts, Killing Time, Nothing But The Truth, Edufa, Tilting Ground, Right If You Say So, The Night Before, Who’s Your Daddy etc.
Marrianne Nungo’s Bio and awards: https://goo.gl/fvEoyX
Connect with Nungo;
Facebook: Marrianne Nungo
Youtube: Marrianne Nungo