“And the Oscar goes to…”
The camera panned across five nervous nominees: Jennifer Lawrence for American Hustle; June Squibb for Nebraska; Julia Roberts for August: Osage County, Sally Hawkins for Blue Jasmine and newcomer, Lupita Nyong’o for 12 Years a Slave.
Last year’s best supporting actor, Christoph Waltz, was on stage at Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles at Hollywood’s night of the year—the 86th Academy Awards.
Lawrence was the favorite for her role of Rosalyn Rosenfeld in American Hustle, but it was not to be. In a blaze of emotion, up stepped a daughter of Kenya. It was March 2, seventy five years after Hattie McDaniel became the first black person to win an Academy Award. In more than seven decades, a mere seven black women have won in either the Best Actress or Best Supporting Actress categories; only three hailed from Africa.
“Lupita Nyong’o is already an African icon, not just for what she has achieved with her remarkable win at the Academy Awards, but more importantly for what she has almost overnight come to symbolize, the undeniable truth that African women are increasingly charting their own course,” says Biola Alabi, the managing director of M-Net in Africa.
“Here is a beautiful black woman, comfortable in her own skin, clearly highly educated, who can champion the next generation of African talent; she is a blessing to Kenya and the continent and long may she prosper. From where I sit, it is an absolute truth that the lead performances were Kenyan and Nigerian—I know its trendy to call Chiwetel Ejiofor black British but he is an Ibo boy and we claim him. However, perhaps African countries can begin to understand and appreciate the nobility of the higher arts of song, dance, theater and film and invest and support them… I would have loved to see her shout out Kenya and say something in Swahili but, hey, you can’t have it all,” says entrepreneur Obi Asika, the chairman of Social Media Week Lagos.
What a difference six months makes. Back then, 31-year-old Nyong’o was a struggling unknown in Hollywood who lived lean and carried her own clothes.
The role that was to change her life, cast her alongside London-born Nigerian, Ejiofor, in a film based on the 1853 memoir by Solomon Northup—the tale of a free man kidnapped into slavery.
Steve McQueen cast Nyong’o three weeks before she graduated from Yale School of Drama, after a chance audition in New York. Her manager had the script ready for another client, but when Nyong’o was asked to read, McQueen was keen on her playing Patsey. It went to a second audition with the casting director.
“It was a one-hour, very gruelling audition. Then I was shortlisted and invited to Louisiana to audition with Steve about two weeks later. So it was three auditions in three different states,” she says.
Filled with excitement she phoned her father, Peter Anyang’ Nyong’o, a professor back in Nairobi, to tell him the news that she was going to be in a film with Brad Pitt.
“My father said he had never heard of him, but he was glad I had finally got a job,” says Nyong’o.
It has been a long and winding journey that began in the gentle world of amateur dramatics. It was with the Pheonix Players in Nairobi that Nyong’o took her first tender steps in Shakespeare.
Drama teacher, Ian Mbugua, who ran the Phoenix Players for 19 years, remembers it well.
“Lupita first came to us as a student from Rusinga School. She was brought by her father Professor Anyang’ Nyong’o who had obviously seen her talent. Nyongo and his wife Dorothy were very supportive of the theater and used to bring young Lupita to productions. He left her in the capable hands of James Falkland who put her as Juliet alongside George Mumbai, who played Romeo,” says Mbugua.
“Needless to say she gave a sterling performance… I was very impressed by her parent’s support. At a time when parents wanted their kids to study medicine, law, engineering, the Nyongos supported her dream to be an actress. She always approached rehearsals and performances with the seriousness they deserved. She was very eloquent and had wonderful stage presence. She was a passionate actress. Off-stage she had a great sense of humor and was always quick to laugh.”
“We remember how brilliantly she played Juliet in Romeo and Juliet at the Phoenix Theatre, at the age of 14 years; how she cracked our ribs during St. Mary’s School plays, or at the British High Commission, when as a teenager, she played Natalya in Anton Chekhov’s The Proposal,” says her mother, Dorothy Nyong’o.
Nyong’o emigrated to the United States 10 years ago, where she earned a degree in film and theater studies from Hampshire College. In her summer break, she headed back to Africa where she worked on the production crew of Mira Nair’s The Namesake. In another Nairobi summer, she served as a production assistant on the set of The Constant Gardener starring Ralph Fiennes.
“Ralph Fiennes was a pivotal influence on me,” she told the New York Post. “He asked me, ‘So what is it you want to do?’ I very shyly, timidly admitted that I wanted to be an actor. He sighed, and he said, ‘Lupita, only be an actor if you feel there is nothing else in the world you want to do—only do it if you feel you cannot live without acting.’”
The second of six children, Nyong’o was born in Mexico City, where her father, a politician in Kenya, had fled to following the disappearance of his brother in difficult political times. The Nyong’o family hails from the Luo people in western Kenya, like Barack Obama’s father. When Nyong’o was less than a year old, her parents moved back to Kenya, where her father is now a senator representing Kisumu County; her mother is the managing director of the Africa Cancer Foundation. Her parents sent her back to Mexico, at the age of 16, to learn Spanish.
Fast forward to the Oscars, Nyong’o, who sports short kinky hair and a pale blue dress, a color she says reminds her of Nairobi, picked up the award for one of the great moments in movie history. The moment when the sadistic cotton plantation owner Edwin Epps, played by Michael Fassbender, whips Patsey near to death; when it becomes unbearable, he forces her friend Solomon to take over.
“It doesn’t escape me for one moment that so much joy in my life is thanks to so much pain in someone else’s, and so I want to salute the spirit of Patsey for her guidance,” says a tearful Nyong’o on Oscar night.
What is next for Kenya’s first Oscar winner? Her next role is in a thriller set on an international flight, with Liam Neeson, that opened in February. It is likely to sell well in Nairobi where a whole new generation of young Kenyan actresses are learning their lines for the amateur stage with one eye on Lupita and the other on the future.