‘Dreaming big’ brings alumna Peres Owino from Nairobi, Kenya, to LA…by way of UW-Green Bay

Receiving 2023 Distinguished Alumni Award Peres Owino '99 (Social Change and Development/Theater.) Peres is an award-winning Kenyan-American storyteller who came onto the scene with her directorial debut, "BOUND: Africans vs African-Americans."

Without question, Peres Owino had a dream. Her pursuit of that dream brought her from Nairobi, Kenya, through the tunnels of UW-Green Bay, and landing beneath the bright lights of Hollywood, where she is a successful writer, director and producer.

She wouldn’t have had it any other way.

“(Green Bay) …is my favorite place to be because its where I’ve learned the most about America/Americans, understanding who they by living right in the middle of it,” says Owino.

Owino was back on campus in April 2023 and was recognized with UW-Green Bay’s Distinguished Alumni Award along with her siblings, Dave (a Forbes business executive) and Rita, (an international healthcare consultant.)

Her journey to UW-Green Bay is quite ‘serendipitous,’ as she explains it, and has partly to do with her mother’s willingness to tell anyone and everyone about her children. “My mother was talking about us (Peres and sister Rita) and Dr. Richard Logan, a UW-Green Bay professor studying in Kenya overheard her, and suggested we attend UW-Green Bay.” Shortly after, Prof. Logan welcomed Peres on-campus, and to the U.S. for the very first time. Her biggest surprise, of course, was the weather. “It was so cold your body fluids would freeze,” she says, sharing her story of the first time she experienced a snowfall. “It was violent,” she exclaims with mock terror. “The snowflakes hitting my eyeballs…I thought I would lose an eye!”

But she stayed and studied writing and theatre arts at UW-Green Bay, never doubting her dream to one day become an actor. After completing two degrees Theater and the Performing Arts and Social Change and Development (now Democracy and Justice Studies,) and much to her father’s dismay, Owino set off to Los Angeles with $10 on a Discover card and a ride from her friend Jessica.

“When we arrived in LA, a former Theater-mate, Meg was gracious enough to make space in her apartment for us. A few months later, I had no job and no place to live,” says Owino. Because of her foreign passport, a tourist hostel allowed her room and board in exchange for three hours of work. She took full advantage while at the same time writing stories and searching for a job in “the industry.” She refused to wait tables, as so many up-and-coming actors believe they need to do, and instead found temporary work in the office of the executive vice president for creative advertising at Paramount Pictures.

All this time, Owino continued to listen, learn and most importantly, write plays, screenplays and participate in art that she found true to her lived experience – not the latest trends, or what others thought she should be doing. This prompted her to write and direct a story inspired by an encounter she had while studying at UW-Green Bay. It became her first big hit, “BOUND: Africans vs African-Americans.” BOUND is a documentary that attempts to heal the little-known rift between people of African descent.

“I planned to audition for a play that took place in Africa, but after reading the script I was so depressed that I couldn’t step out my front door. It was at that moment that I decided that I wanted to show the world MY AFRICA. Not the way other people saw us, but the way WE SEE OURSELVES.  I started work on my original screenplay, The Basket Weaver that evening.” The Basket Weaver would go on to win the NYWIFT Writer’s Lab supported by Meryl Streep.

Owino’s feature credits also include; Seasons of Love, produced by Taraji P. Henson, nominated for an NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Writing of a Television Movie; and “Once Upon A Time in Africa.”Her original works for the stage include her one act play, Cut which premiered at The Walt Disney Concert Hall – REDCAT and her one-woman show, Beauty For Ashes.

In TV, her show, “African Queens: Njinga ” which she co-wrote for Netflix, Westbrook and Nutopia premiered February 15, 2023 and “Queen Cleopatra,” written by Owino and executive produced by Jada Pinkett-Smith made its debut on Netflix in late spring of 2023. Listen to Peres share additional details about what she’s been working on.

Peres took time to sit in on a couple of theatre classes and for a round of Q and A before the on-campus screening of “BOUND.” She provided valuable and insightful advice to students attending, with humor and a passion that comes from her desire to make a path to Hollywood easier for her fellow Phoenix alumni.

How did you get from graduation to where you are now?

Audaciously…which translates to bold and sometimes stupid choices. I hitched a ride to LA with $10 to my name. Thank you Jessica Jelinski. I got my first job scooping ice cream at Universal Studios. Three months later I walked away from it because that was not what I wanted to be doing at a studio. I mean, every day I’d show up with a different accent just to keep myself entertained.  So, I reverted back to what I know, performance. I met other actors and started putting up plays around town. Then I got a gig working in creative advertising at Paramount. That was an invaluable experience because it taught me the business side of show business. Then I took the advice of a friend and wrote my first screenplay, and the rest is history.

How do you prep for an audition or pitch session?

The basics, understand the heart and soul of what you’re pitch and who you are pitching too. In the case of an audition understand your character and memorize your lines. But remember, audition & pitching are subjective, which makes rejection rates high. So, focus on winning the people in the room so that it’s not just about “getting” this job or this project, but about being memorable enough to be called back again. To do that, you need to toss all that pressure to be perfect out the window and show up as you. Trust me, there is nothing more unique and interesting than YOU. The more of “you” that shows up, before and after the audition or pitch the better your chances of winning the room.

What skill set is most useful, i.e. writing, acting, etc.?

A creative is just that, a creator. So be as versatile as possible. God didn’t stop at “let there be light,” so why would you? Keep going until you reach your seventh day. Expand the scope of what you can do, who you can be. Every skill you cultivate refines the one before it.  The fact that I am an actor makes pitching as a writer a breeze. Don’t limit yourself.

What makes you proud to be a Phoenix?

I’m proud to be a Phoenix for the oddest reasons, because there are not a lot of Phoenixes in my industry. Meaning, I know that there are a lot of other voices out there that we’ll never get a shot at being heard because they don’t come from the “approved” schools. I see those people. I am those people. That’s why it’s so important to kick doors down and break glass ceilings. Not just for you, but for everyone who is not part of the “powerful alumni” in your industry.

What’s saving your life right now?

My four-year-old nephew.

What are some of your favorite books?

In the fiction space, I read across time, genre and culture. The Kite Runner, Things Fall Apart, Lord of the Rings, The Bluest Eyes, The Road, Cherry Magic, Wuthering Heights, Interpreter of Maladies, Lie With Me, Children of Blood & Bone, The Arabian Nights. I’m anywhere and everywhere. But, in the non-fiction space I lean toward books that speak on poignant moments in human history; The enslavement of African people, Colonialism, the Holocaust, the World Wars and Religion.

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