An interview by Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson
Friday, December 03, 2010.
Two continents, seven languages: A UK-based Belgian of Rwandan descent, Ery Nzaramba is also a performer, writer and budding film-maker who has already accumulated enough real life drama to inform the many facets of his artistic career.
Nzaramba is currently rehearsing for The Unicorn Theatre’s seasonal production of Beauty and the Beast, where the writer Phil Porter’s rendition of the classic story is in the final stages of preparation.
Nzaramba describes why he’s looking forward to this latest project.
“It’s going to be on an epic scale, in the round, with the audience all round the stage. It promises to be very exciting.”
Since joining the Unicorn ensemble in 2009, Nzaramba’s roles have been as far removed from his childhood in Rwanda - where he lived until his early teens - as can be imagined. Growing up in the capital city Kigali he had an uneventful but happy childhood until the events of 1994 when political catastrophe in the central African state led to the deaths of many and a massive refugee crisis.
“Like many of my generation we were not aware of the tensions leading to what happened in 1994. It was a bit of a shock because amongst my friends we had Hutus and Tutsis; we all used to hang together, without ever really knowing that we were supposed to be enemies. At first we stayed for about three months in Rwanda… we never knew how long it was going to be, or that it was going to be that tragic and that big. It started in April and in July  we had to leave the country.”
Despite having the early part of his secondary education in Kigali disrupted by such traumatic events he has never looked back nor let it affect his personal or academic ambitions. In between he was forced, with his family, to flee their homeland, and detoured through Kenya and Congo, ending up in Belgium where he joined relatives already settled there. He completed his formal education is 2001 with a masters degree in Information and Communications Technology from the University of Ghent.
Many of the Nzaramba’s friends and relatives (both his parents are now dead) live in Europe; and of these, some have returned to Rwanda. For him the only return to the continent has been to visit his sister, who left England for South Africa three years ago. Like many expatriate Africans who have lived in Europe or the Americas for quite a long time, the return visit to the continent can be unsettling. It is an anxiety he acknowledges: “It was quite something after 15 years. Then again South Africa is the perfect country to start with because it is fairly developed - the transition coming from Europe is milder; you don’t feel it as much. I am still waiting for the opportunity to get back to Rwanda to see what is happening in my country.”
The culture shock caused by his arrival in Belgium and trying to process the adult crises exploding around him was cushioned by his ability to speak French – one of the languages of modern day Rwanda (the region initially squabbled over by Germany and France in the 19th century, achieved independence from Belgium in 1962). After completing a secondary education cut short in Rwanda, Nzaramba decided to pursue his education at degree level in Flemish; which is similar to Dutch, and the other official language of Belgium.
He has spoken in the past of the different personalities he is often forced to adopt when speaking or performing in either English or French, and equally bizarre expectations of him as an African actor from Africa. So for him the ability to speak and perform in several languages (he has English, French, Dutch, Kinyarwanda [the native language of Rwanda], Spanish, Swahili and German) is a double-edged sword: “that has really enriched my acting abilities because I can draw from different cultural sources; and that makes me different; and kind of unique - but also difficult to cast”, he says laughing off any temptation to career change into linguistics.
After graduating in 2001, he became an IT professional, where he combined his nine-to–five with drama classes, eventually auditioning successfully for the Conservatoire Royal de Bruxelles, a prestigious drama school in Brussels. This lead to European wide tours, he travelled to England where his sister was now living and was later admitted to the Birmingham School of Acting in 2004. With a drama school certificate, Nzaramba currently has no intention of returning to the world of software engineering, although he reluctantly admits it is a definite Plan B in the harsh world of theatre.
Like many of his peers, Nzaramba’s appetite for performance began at family gatherings as a child. It was an interest rediscovered in different circumstances later on in his life when he was encouraged to do drama whilst living in an Asylum Seekers Centre in Belgium. Recalling his childhood in Rwanda he describes: “occasions where I was responsible for being like an MC [at weddings]; leading all the kids in dance and everything. I think that was the beginning of my performers’ spirit.”
Since Nzaramba joins The Unicorn Theatre Ensemble in 2009 his acting gigs have not always been as child-orientated as in Beauty and the Beast; in fact, he has taken a path that seems to be the standard training ground for young actors with appearances in popular long running soap operas such as The Bill. These in addition to radio, stage and theatre work. His other acting gigs also draw on his own heritage and personal experiences, which is echoed in his work as a trustee for the Iceandfire Theatre Company that is dedicated to exploring human rights issues through performance. It was for this group that he performed in the critically acclaimed Rendition Monologues at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival in 2009.
Nzaramba says: “I enjoy serious subjects in theatre. I was an asylum seeker, I was a refugee; and that history is there - the point is not to forget about it; I want to use it and what I do, to raise awareness of it as well. That is the kind of theatre I am very much interested in, and strong at. Having said that The Unicorn made me realise that I love doing comedy, and I am actually good at it as well.”
Nzaramba is also an ardent Shakespearian with appearances in the Unicorn’s production of The Tempest earlier this year as well regional tours of As You Like It before he joined the ensemble. He points out that he is inspired by Shakespeare, although he has strong and controversial opinions on the Bard.
“It is the best thing an actor can do, it is an unlimited pool. You can go there and lose yourself in it and you will find something different every single time; and also you don’t have to be British to do Shakespeare. It is a universal thing even though the language may be off-putting. Everything is in the language and if you make the effort to harness the language when you go on the stage you have three quarters of the work done. Whether it is dramatic or comedy it requires you to go for it and to be strong in your commitments and your choices; that is what I have learned; it is liberating.”
A reworking of The Three Musketeers scheduled for early next year could be his final stint with the Unicorn ensemble. He will know then if his contract is to be renewed or not and - as is typical of many actors - he is busy using his spare time investigating future options on stage and screen.
One project he is buzzing with enthusiasm about is a script he’s developing for a biopic on the story of little known but controversial Zimbabwean writer Dambudzo Marechera (1952-1987) whose book The House of Hunger won the Guardian Fiction Prize in 1979.
“What attracted me is (that it is) not just his story, but it also my story; and a story of Africans who have left their country whilst it is in turmoil. I haven’t returned to Rwanda yet; but I am exploring what will happen if I return. People will be expecting something from me and I will be expecting to see a certain country - and probably will see a different country. That is why I am fascinated by that story.”
Developing the Marechera film will build on the film-making skills he gained during his time at the Birmingham School of Acting. G54 - a short film which Nzaramba co-wrote, co-directed and starred in - was selected for the Beyond TV International Video Festival in 2006. The mockumentary explores the factors driving the migration of young Africans to Europe and traced the different paths of a refugee and a student in the UK. He followed this up with Annex (2009) about the relationship between an asylum seeker and a professional in Campsfield House Immigration Removal Centre, helmed by his own Maliza Productions.
For the moment he is concentrating on acting and writing, and with performance poetry, producing and film-making skills he can choose from several career avenues.
“Ideally I would love to combine all of those; but at the moment I want to focus on the stage and in front of camera. Behind camera is something I will do in the future. I am still learning with acting and writing; I want to know what I am doing before I throw myself into directing big projects."
And if in the unlikely event that all else fails there’s always linguistics or software engineering.
Beauty and The Beast
Written by Phil Porter
Directed by Tony Graham
147 Tooley Street
London SE1 2HZ
04 December 2010 – 23 January 2011
0207 645 0560
Shaun Ajamu Hutchinson is The New Black Magazine's arts editor and a London-based freelance journalist.