As we continue on this series of East African directors, I compare and contrast two female directors; - Carol Odongo–Boy and Ekwa Msangi. One is a theatre expert who has spread her wings to TV production while the other is an independent film maker who has carved her niche on both the local and international scenes.
i. EKWA MSANGI
Ekwa grew up dreaming of a music career. She left nothing to chance as she took her music lessons in school and even joined the
She however continued with music since as far as she was concerned no East African had ventured into movie-making before. Imagine her surprise when she found out that her uncle, by virtue of being married to her auntie, was involved in film making! Her American uncle was an ex-Black Panther member who for undisclosed reasons had to leave America and moved to Tanzania. It turned out that while at Tanzania he worked for one of the premier production houses to be set-up in East Africa. They produced anti-apartheid campaign materials, educational pieces and radio plays. Her uncle later moved to Nairobi and Ekwa’s dad requested him to mentor her on the Art of Film. Of course, years later many actors (including myself) across East Africa, America and the Caribbean are glad she had protested while the rest of us were happily enjoying the drive-in cinema experience.
I first met Ekwa when I went to audition for a production that had been rumored to be of high budget and that would be the first drama series produced by M-Net in East Africa. There is always one nerve that pumps harder during auditions even though you feel well-prepared. Ekwa operated the auditions very differently. She made me feel like I was not auditioning but rather I was experiencing a practical session. I tried two roles and even insisted that I would like to try another one. She called me for a second round of auditions which was just as engaging as the first one. I was then selected to play a role that was to change my life as far as my acting experience was concerned.
So what made Ekwa such a great actor-director? After high school, Ekwa went to America to pursue a degree in film-making and TV production at the New York University. She did not quite enjoy the first years as she faced the same challenge she had as a young girl watching movies with her family- all the projects to study were occidental and she could not relate to them. It was only in her fourth year that she was introduced to African film makers. She was intrigued but also annoyed that she had to come all the way to America and wait for three years before learning about these great artistes. She decided to enroll for a Masters Degree in African Films. This would mark the beginning of her pursuit of high quality and meaningful films that would inspire and affect people back home. As life continued to unfold, she went from project to project in the USA which automatically became her third home. She is a Tanzanian who grew up in Kenya.
You can therefore only imagine Ekwa’s joy about five years ago when her script The Agency was picked by M-Net Africa as the first locally produced one hour long drama series in East Africa. The scope of the project was big and gave her an opportunity to learn
With several award–winning films under her belt including her short film thriller Taharuki (Suspense), a 12-minute prequel to her feature film In development, was picked up for distribution by Shorts International Inc. and is currently in circulation in both North America and Europe. Weakness, a short film she produced, was nominated for a 2010 Kalasha Award and a 2011 African Movie Academy Award (AMAA). She is in the last leg of promoting Soko Sonko (The Market King) which was commissioned by Focus Features Africa First Program. She is currently co-writing and directing a highly engaging and artistic comical web series called All My Friends Are Married.
Ekwa’s approach is very much a reflection of her altruistic personality, as per the typical Tanzanian way. She focuses on getting the actor to be as natural as possible. She believes that actors are not only selected for their ability to act or for having the features the script has stated but that they also carry the personality that a director can best use if the actor is “himself”. She therefore engages the actor’s true nature in relation to the role being played.
ii. CAROLINE ODONGO –BOY
Despite my desire to work under this top talent in Kenyan theatre, I never really got to work with Carol until sometime in 2013 when she herself went through baptism by fire by directing 120 episodes in a series as her introduction to TV directing. But I am jumping ahead so let me start from somewhere.
Meeting with Carol at Wasanii (we miss that bar!) was always a pleasurable moment. Her satin, bold and cheerful face made you think she was one of the new actresses looking for an audition at the Kenya National Theatre. As a matter of fact Carol Odongo is one of the most experienced and successful thespians in East Africa. She started acting in 1990 while in university. During this period, theatre was still regarded highly as an intellectual form whose reflections had great impact on the society. Perhaps because the Kamirithu movement tale (where villagers, mostly illiterate women, who had never seen a theatre before built an amphitheatre-like performance space where they performed indigenous plays) was still rife and Ngugi wa Thion’go’s revolutionary theatrical campaigns that saw audiences fill the theatre as early as 5 a.m. just to watch a play were also a near memory.Either way theatre was then still highly regarded and revered in Kenya. This was the scenario that Carol had to contend with and this meant that getting roles was not automatic; she had to prove herself.
Her first challenge was a Theatre For Development model- based project that required a cast of more than twenty performers. It was in 1996 while working at the Phoenix Players where the legendary James Falkland noticed her attention to detail and interpretive skills and took it upon himself to mentor Carol into one of the most sort after directors to date. Of course all Falklandarians have a favorite lesson- hers was how to deal with actors because of their varied temperaments and personalities. Falkland always compared actors to 'race horses'- you must know how to deal with them; know when to use the carrot and when to use the stick!
Carol left an admirable record at Phoenix having worked on fifty repertories. Demand for her work however grew and every producer who cared about high quality and dignified production contacted her. This saw her direct numerous plays at the Kenya National Theatre, Alliance Française and theatre companies in Mombasa between 2002 -2004. Around this period many great and successful actors passed through her capable hands, including Kenneth Mason, Annabel Maule, Sam Madoka and Ian Mbugua.
Many actors see Carol as a mentor who took it upon herself to take time to train the actor having been fully aware that there are no successful acting schools in Kenya (And please don’t tell me about the archaic and classical-theory filled theatre and film degree course in the universities). As a matter of fact it is difficult to find a successful Nairobian actor who has been in this game for a while and did not go through Carol!
Why did Carol turn to film directing? Film was never far from Carol’s grasp as her husband Cajetan Boy, one of the most prolific script writers in East Africa, had already made the switch from stage to film.
Have you worked with either of these ladies? What did you think? What did you learn? I would love to hear….