At the Kalasha Film and TV Awards in December 2022, Nyokabi Macharia was the envy of all as she scooped the coveted Best Lead Actress in a Film award. She stands out. It has been a good year.
Lately, she has been wearing her hair short. It is in a buzz cut, sometimes dark, sometimes coloured. It is an edgy look and makes a statement of its own. She is full of life and easily likeable. Her jokes are infectious. There is no dull moment being around this awesome talent.
The 28-year-old actress stars in series County 49 as Debrah Maka, the governor’s chief of staff at fictional Bwatele County.
“For me, executing that role had to be a balance between vulnerability and power,” she says. The actress notes that while playing the role, she learned to take one scene at a time and truly separate her personality from the character.
“I had to remove the ‘Nyokabi’ from my thoughts while performing and instead ask myself; What would this specific character feel and do?”
Her voice is firm and her pronunciations perfect, as I later learn, she is exposed to and has lived in the land from which English ‘originates’, the UK.
But she also has that sense of being truly Kenyan - she will occasionally throw in a few words in sheng or slang, or Kiswahili Sanifu itself.
The idea is to get to know the Kalasha award winner better. Her professional reputation speaks for itself with notable works under her belt, from Netflix’s Country Queen to Showmax’s County 49 and Crime and Justice.
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“I grew up in Nakuru, in a loving family of four, what do we call that - when the kids are two?” Nyokabi laughs.
She says that since she can remember, her family and friends appreciated her artistic capability and would always encourage her to take up acting.
“I always felt that there was a certain reception I would get- after taking on acting roles in the drama club at school,” she says.
The actress began taking a chance at film and acting in primary school but notes that her interest in the craft peaked in secondary school.
“I would say that in high school, my professionalism as an actor truly began. When we would go to other schools for funkies for drama festivals, some of my friends would be there to make friends but I was there to win,” Nyokabi says.
She adds: “I would be interested in knowing from which school someone is and what they are presenting on the stage.”
She reminisces on one festival season when she knew for sure that she had the talent and skill to be a professional actor.
“This one time, we had a play and I was acting a role called ‘The Undertaker’. The character was written for a boy but I took it up anyway. After it was over, students from other schools came looking for me, wondering who this ‘undertaker’ was,” Nyokabi says, adding, “they were surprised to find out that it was a girl.”
“That year, I won best regional actress at the drama festivals.”
But despite the evidence of her talent, Nyokabi didn’t always look at acting as something she could do to make a living.
“Growing up, art was not looked at as a career. I was brought up being given the example of Nameless and Wahu and their professional careers as architect and mathematician respectively,” Nyokabi says.
“I was often told that art does not pay and that I would have to have another career as a plan B.”
But it was her experience at Daystar University that opened her up to the possibilities of a profession in the arts.
“The campus was culturally vibrant, and I met many colleagues who were taking their craft seriously. I became aware that this is something that I could do and make a living from.”
The Theatre times reports on Nyokabi’s path to professional acting after school.
“Outside school, her most notable production was Jesus Christ Superstar produced by the Nairobi Performing Arts Studio in the year 2017. A few months later she was on a plane to the UK,” the report notes. Nyokabi describes her experience as Jesus Christ Superstar as an eye-opening one, where she got to nurture her skill and range as an actor.
“I played the character of Mary Magdalene, which I secured after a strict audition. It was performed at the Kenya National Theatre and was a very big deal at the time.”
Her six-month trip to the U.K. after the successful play was however tainted by her experience with racism.
“I was the only black person in a room at any particular time and this was so new to me. I had never had to think about my race back home in Kenya. I faced the harsh reality that racism does still exist and that my race could sometimes be a hindrance.”
“Had Jesus Christ Superstar been produced in another country, would I have been cast as Mary Magdalene? Or would a white character be automatically seen as better suited?” Nyokabi poses during our conversation.
The Theatre Times notes that the actress soon secured an internship at The Omnibus Theatre which put up the show The London Eye that she got to be a part of.
“I learnt a lot being a part of that project, and I honed my craft learning from different artistes and more importantly, finding myself,” she says.
In 2018, Nyokabi was cast as Giraffe on the children’s show Tinga Tinga The Musical.
“Working on Tinga Tinga was a good experience, as the cast and crew were very well taken care of. As an artiste, being well compensated and valued lets you put all your energy into the craft and do your best as an actor.”
The show had a run at the New Victory Theatre in New York City, the only full-time Broadway theatre for children and families, The Theatre Times reports.
“It was Tinga Tinga’s director, Emmy Award-nominated producer and writer Claudia Lloyd who spotted her talent and recommended the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama.”
She made a return to the UK to join the drama school for her Masters in 2019.
The actress has now moved back to the country and is working on multiple projects- including several plays and her own company; Shorts From Africa Collective, for which she has partnered with actress Nice Githinji.