Interview by Ogova Ondego
Published October 22, 2008
Peres Auma Owino, a Kenyan performer who went to the USA in 1995 to study political science at the University of Wisconsin but ended up adding drama to her curriculum and graduated Summa Cum Laude for both majors and set up base in LA, is about to stage her play, Beauty for Ashes, in Los Angeles, California, November 7-23, 2008. She speaks about her life, African heritage, career and plans to OGOVA ONDEGO.
What is Beauty for Ashes?
It is my personal story. It is time for me to cross over and let go of my ghosts. I am letting my friends, family and strangers in on my secrets. Beauty for Ashes revolves around me and the night in my bathroom that changed my life. The night that my inner spirit turned my stare inward and I was forced to look at some traumatic experiences that happened in my childhood and how I had pretended for so long that I was ‘over’ them. I learn my lesson by walking in the shoes of a traditional Luo witchdoctor, then an 18th century African bride, then a 21st century whore. Think of it as generational baggage that women carry. I walk into these women’s lives and see how I am an extension of those women’s experiences carried on and that I need to break free from all that and define myself.
How did you get on stage?
There is a funny story to this. I played a small role in the Tsavo House play. All I had to do was lay down and act like I was dying, pretty simple. At the beginning of the year, I think, we had Drama club try outs at my high school, Loreto Limuru and I was just hanging around the Hall watching when Bernadette, who was President of the Drama club at the time, basically dragged me onto the stage and forced me to audition. I made it in. It was funny at the time, but who knew?
How and when did you get to the United States of America?
I moved to the US in 1995 for university studies.
What did you study and what level?
I had been accepted for Political Science, which I did. But a year into that field of study, I found myself at Theater Hall. I found myself at Theater Hall. See, for me, there is something about the smell of a stage. Anyone who has been on stage never forgets the smell. There was an audition taking place for an English play “Bedroom Farce” by Alan Ackybourn and I was deathly afraid. I was not a ‘Theater’ person. But wouldn’t you know. This Kenyan girl, the only person of color in the entire department, got to play one of the lead roles. Needless to say, I tacked on Theater as a major and graduated Summa Cum Laude for both majors, Theater and Political Science.
What have you been doing since your graduation from college in 2000?
Well, I moved to LA with $10 dollars to my name and haven’t looked back since. As a Producer, I’ve produced 4 plays, 2 PSAs, 1 film. As an actor, I’ve starred in 12 independent films and over 20 plays. As a writer, I’ve published 4 poems, been commissioned to write 6 screenplays, 1 Reality TV script, 4 stage plays, 2 PSAs and multiple spec music videos. I have several manuscripts on hand waiting for a publisher. I have 4 screenplays ready for production.
Have you faced any challenges, being a single black woman in foreign land?
I would not say I have faced challenges, but I have encountered ignorance. For one, I have been accused of not being ‘Black enough’ for the roles I audition for. Maybe it’s the slight British accent or that I do not come off as the stereotypical African American. Trust me; there are a lot of African Americans who are accused of this, Barack Obama being one. But this has not been a hindrance. Quite the contrary actually, it caused me to focus a lot more attention on writing and producing. I, for one, do not wait on others to help me realize my dreams. I get out there and make it happen. My womanhood does not matter to me at all to me. If someone feels uncomfortable or threatened by that, it’s their issue to deal with. I keep my eye on my destiny.
Is there anything you could term an achievement in your career so far?
That I made it with $10 on a credit card to my name! I don’t think anyone knows and will ever know how difficult that was. I was near homeless, seriously. If it was not for the hostel that allowed me to work for room and board I would have been on the street. To add on to that, my relationship with a man I thought I would marry had come to a brutally painful end. When I got to LA I was clinically depressed. So, here is a depressed, broke, African girl sharing a room with 4 other women with questionable hygiene in a city where everyone is a stranger, trying to make it in Hollywood.
When, exactly, do you plan to relocate to Kenya?
My target date is 01/01/10. I like that number. Moving to LA was done in a whim and from that I learned the importance of planning. If I fail to plan, I plan to fail. I need to plan.
What can Kenya learn from the American performing arts practice?
Initiative, Innovation, passion and perfection.
Initiative is the heartbeat of the American spirit. The importance that one person places in their ability, their place in the great wheel is very vital. Working on a film crew is one of the most amazing experiences. I mean, the work ethic is insane.
Innovation is the key to always getting better. If there meet a road block they figure out a way past it. When you get stuck, don’t stop. Life is asking you to think outside the box.
Passion is the breath of filmmaking. This career requires people who are passionate about their work. Perfection is the mark of professionalism. If you can’t do something well, don’t do it at all.
Say something about your family background, i.e. siblings, parents, extended family, etc.
I come from a relatively large family with 3 brothers and 3 sisters. My two younger sisters, helped with the costumes for this show. My mother, who makes me laugh till this day, calls me regularly to let me know she is praying for me. She is my heartbeat. My father, the Luo warrior, has been such a great influence. I adore him. When we were young he pasted the laws of the 7 Ds in the hallway, that way we’d see it every time we went into our rooms. That document was very powerful, I can’t remember it, but I remember it. If that makes any sense. I love and miss them dearly.
Where did you grow up?
I grew up in Nairobi and Kisumu.
What is your marital status and do you have any children?
Sorry, but I don’t discuss personal life.
How has your marital status affected your career?
It has not affected it in any way.
You appear to be more involved in live performance than in film or television. Is this an accurate observation?
No, prior to this show, I starred in 4 independent films and 2 public service announcements. In the past 3 years, I have performed in 3 times as many films as stage productions.
Did your love for African folk tales begin in Kenya or in America after having been away from home for 14 years?
I have always enjoyed stories of Africa…siganas, Things Fall Apart, Lwanda Magere, Nyamngodho Wod Obare; mostly stories about traditional Africa. I am not really drawn to post-colonial African stories. I want my people’s stories to flow through me to the next generation and the next and the next. I want my children and grandchildren to enjoy them like I did. My people, my language, my Africa, our stories are my passion. I am doing this to conserve our stories, our truth.
How can stage and screen be married, i.e. how can the former affect the latter and vice versa?
As a performer, there is nothing that best equips you for film like theatre experience. Theater gives you the tools necessary to understand character arch and through lines. Theatre instills an unshakeable work ethic and a true love for the craft. The greatest actors were/are stage trained. From Sir Lawrence Olivier, Sean Penn, John Malkovich to Ladies Judi Dench, Maggie Smith, Cate Blanchett and Emma Thompson. Theatre is the place you learn to play, create, be and really let your creativity soar because you have to do more with less. Cinema benefits from the skills theatre teaches the actor, director and writer and adds one key element, greater possibilities.
What keeps you going?
My vision to produce Kenyan films that compete with American, European, and South American films. That has always been the driving force, to tell my people’s stories. I have gathered enough experience at Paramount Pictures and Alliance Atlantis, learned from the best and greatest in the industry. Directors like Guillermo Del Toro, Stanley Kubrick, Darren Aronofsky, Michael Bay and Steve Spielberg. Producers like Jerry Bruckheimer, Lorenzo Di Bonaventura, JJ Abrams and Bryan Burke. Actors like Gael Garcia Bernal, Cate Blanchett, Johnny Depp, James McAvoy, Damian Lewis and Christian Bale. Writers like Eric Roth, William Goldman. Composers like Jonathan Elias, Hans Zimmerman, James Horner and John Williams, just to name a few. The movies and plays that I have produced, written or performed in have always had that vision as the underlying stream. That is my road.
What is next for you?
I just finished a book and we are looking for a publisher. I am also writing a dance piece for the stage. But my heart’s desire is to study for my Master’s in Film at the Berlin Film School. I am currently looking for sponsors.
What haven’t you done, that you would love to do?
Release a music album. I can sing. I’m more of Ayub Ogada meets Nora Jones type, though.