Sunday, June 15, 2008

Sidede Onyulo: Exit of Kenyan Giant

His towering physique aptly complemented a versatile artistic talent that strode effortlessly on the theatre stage as it shone on the cinema screens in a career spanning about thirty-five years. Sidede Onyulo passed away about a month ago at his Kajulu home in Kisumu where he was buried without much fanfare as was typical of his unpretentious lifestyle.

Although Onyulo attained remarkable success on the international movie scene, his fame was not widely celebrated in Kenya perhaps owing to an existence devoid of flamboyant displays. He is reputed to have had more friends in Europe than peers locally and once remarked that he was “more recognizable in the streets of Munich than Kisumu.”

Onyulo made his entry into the movies in 1987 when he featured in Shadow in the sun. He then went on to star in The Last Elephant (1990), Eye of a Witness (1991), Two worlds, Nowhere in Africa (2003, which made $6million), King Solomon’s Mines (2004), and The Constant Gardener (2005, which made $33million) besides many other television series and short films. Many of these have not been readily available for local viewers, but those who watched them elsewhere always seem to have come out with loads of praise for Onyulo whose performance they variously described thus;

  • “I just watched, "The Constant Gardener" I am thrilled. You made it. How can I contact you personally? You may remember we worked with you in Kenya in the Ministry of Legal Department some years ago. I happy you made the right choice. I am briefly residing in Australia with my entire family.”
  • “I have seen Sidede Onyulo in Nowhere in Africa and King Solomon's Mines the latter of which I seen first. I was so inspired by Mr. Onyulo's performance… He has the most beautiful noble presence I have seen, I don't know what it is but he looks as if he stepped through the clouds of heaven to grace us with his talents… and can't wait to see what his future ones will bring.”
  • “Onyulo is a gem of an actor. His role captivates the audience from the word go. It is from his net that the whole movie is woven.”
  • “An excellent performance by Mr. Onyulo. He has a real screen presence. Well done!”
  • “Very powerful and touching performance. I am very sad to find out this is Mr. Onyulo's only film so far - I hope we see many in the future”
  • “One of the most natural and powerful performances I have see. Sidede is a true talent.”
  • “I have just watched Sidede Onyulo in the movie King Solomon Mines on the Hallmark Channel. Very good acting for a Lawyer turned actor. Keep it up brother we Kenyans are proud of you.”

I captured the above quotes from film review sites on the internet as I searched for information that would give me an insight into Onyulo’s activities out there. The man’s achievements have not received widespread acclamation locally for reasons that are not immediately clear and that is an embarrassing indictment for a society that is in dire need of inspirational figures. Indeed, the bits of information gathered from his would-be peers seem to be suspiciously skewed to portray Onyulo as a recluse, a drunk and a madman for turning his back on a law career.

Sidede Onyulo who was born in Kajulu, attended school at Muthaiga Primary and Nairobi School before enrolling at the University of Nairobi where he studied law between 1975-1978. His classmates at the university included the current speaker of the National Assembly Kenneth Marende and Kisumu Town West MP Olago Aluoch. He abandoned the legal profession in 1979 to engage in full-time theatre practice.

He first took to the stage while at Nairobi School when he played the leading role of Jero in Wole Soyinka’s play Trials of Brother Jero. He followed this with major roles in Ngugi wa Thiongo’s Trial of Dedan Kimathi and Francis Imbuga’s Betrayal in the City which were presented at Festac Nigeria in 1977. Other plays in which he put up superb performances were Sizwe Bansi is Dead, Shaka Zulu, The Successors and Man of Kafira. Onyulo relocated to Kisumu in 1993 where he established the Vigelegele Theatre Troupe to promote and develop performing arts in the region.

His demise is a big loss to the theatre fraternity and leaves unraveled the strange disconnect between his immense accomplishment internationally and a virtual publicity blackout locally. Upcoming thespians could pick up quite some bit of inspiration from Onyulo’s endeavors even though they may have to plough through the distractions and epithets from spiteful souls whose own success is dubious at best.

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