Mbeki Mwalimu’s journey from National Theatre to a Netflix great
By Kirsten Kanja
| October 23rd 2021
The fact that you may have never heard any juicy gossip about celebrated actress Mbeki Mwalimu is no mistake.
She has deliberately kept her personal life out of the public’s prying eyes. Mbeki likes it that way and rarely talks about her love life or family. She is intensely private.
And there is something respectable about her professional mien. It balances out her fiercely artistic and creative side that drives her.
We have arranged a mid-morning meeting at Jain Bhavan Community Center in Nairobi’s Loresho neighbourhood.
Mbeki had previously mentioned that she would slot the sit-down right after her morning rehearsals.
Sure enough, she walks swiftly into the waiting room.
Her hair is cropped short into a buzz-cut and dyed royal blue. It is easy to notice that her nails are well-manicured.
Donning a striped black and white T-shirt and black jeans, she is the epitome of simplicity, and more so, demonstrates the elegance of it.
She has no make-up on, just the blue theme going, and a wristband with the Kenyan flag.
“I have just finished rehearsals with Martin Githinji. I think social media know him as Daddy Marto. After this interview, I will be heading to Runda for rehearsals for the TV series, Selina,” she says.
She is talking about the Maisha Magic Show, where she plays Zoe, a prominently diabolical and catty nemesis of Selina, the lead character.
The 37-year-old is keen to speak about her theatre venture, Back To Basics, a professional performance art theatre that she founded in 2018.
“As Mbeki or as Back To Basics?” she asks when probed about where she can currently be seen in action.
“Of course, there is Selina on Maisha Magic East. It airs Mondays to Fridays at 8.30pm. I’m told that there are repeats of a show I did in 2016 called Kookoo Inn. It’s also on Maisha Magic. A movie I was in called Sincerely Daisy is also on Netflix,” she says.
Sincerely Daisy is a 2020 local romantic comedy that made history by becoming the first-ever Kenyan feature film to be aired on Netflix.
Mbeki says that performing and acting have always been her passion.
She started out participating in music and dancing festivals while in high school.
“When I was in high school I wanted to do arts. But at the time, I also wanted to be a TV presenter. After secondary school though, I realised that what I truly wanted was to perform on stage. Along the way, I fell in love with theatres and being on stage,” she says.
She adds: “As my career progressed, I became more aware of how theatre is run and wanted to be part of the progressive change coming into the industry. At the time, I felt that local theatre wasn’t being run well.”
Mbeki recalls enrolling herself in college and choosing to pursue human resource management in the hope that she could bring a 'corporate feel' into the industry.
“It was after I had done a little bit of acting in theatre. The industry at the time was just about wasanii hitting the stage and then going home afterwards. I remember feeling that ‘this cannot be it.’ I felt that by pursuing human resource management, it would help me incorporate some humane aspects of a proper work environment in the theatre space,” she says.
Mbeki reveals how bumping into a former tutor ignited her love for the theatre scene.
“Two years after high school, I ran into a former school tutor in town. He had spotted me performing during secondary school drama festivals, where my school made it all the way to the nationals. Having spotted my potential, he recommended that I go to the Kenya National Theatre to look for paying gigs."
The determined actress says that she took that advice, and it paid off. She secured the first role she auditioned for, which she had seen on the notice board.
“The team I worked with at the time also did performances on set books and plays, so I got more involved with them and took on the role of a stage manager,” she says.
After several years, the team members went their separate ways, a falling apart that she says paved the way for the establishment of the Festival of Creative Arts (FCA).
“I left FCA in 2016. We had done amazing things and became a household name. I spent the next two years soul-searching. A lot of the scripts we worked on at the time were old British scripts that we costumed to suit certain situations.”
Bored by monotony
The actress said that the monotony of the industry pushed her towards telling more human-interest stories about things and issues that are currently happening and affecting people.
“I wanted to be involved in theatre projects that push the boundaries and make one think. That’s why I came up with my passion project, Back to Basics, in 2018,” she says.
She adds: “We don’t just take a story because it’s funny. We take it in the hope that it will change our audience’s life. When you leave the theatre, you leave as a different person.”
Mbeki says that one of the first people she worked with was writer Jackson Biko, who is popularly known as Bikozulu.
She says that even though she had not met the writer in person or even knew how he looked, she took a leap of faith and sent him an email asking him to put his work on stage.
With his permission, the actress set up performances on Bikozulu’s stories.
“We called that series ‘Breathe’ because I feel like once you have read a Bikozulu story and you are done, that is what you want to do. He has an interesting way of telling stories such that by the end of it, you have either lived through the moment with the character or connected in a way that you see your own reflection in his work,” she says.
Mbeki speaks excitedly about her future projects.
She is about to release 'Breathe 3', which she has created and directed. It features a robust cast including Nick Ndeda, Saumu Kombo, Martin Githinji and Mary Mwikali, among others.
“Things are difficult because of the pandemic. The last screening we had was in March 2020, but now we are back with a bang. We return with more stories from Biko, and they are amazing,” she says.
Mbeki gushes about the theatre where the performances will take place, right here at the Jain Bhavan Community Centre.
“You haven’t seen the stage yet. Oh my, you’ll die!,” she says, the affection for her craft evident in her beaming face.
“I accidentally ran into this place and thought it would be great for performances. It is a big enough space to fill with audiences. We can’t wait to have everyone trickling in ready for a lifetime experience.”
When asked about what else is going on in her life, Mbeki smiles politely, yet firmly and swiftly retreats to obscurity.
“The posts I put up on social media are the only things I want the public to know about. What I don’t post is personal,” she says.
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