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Podcast Ep. 4 — Anne-Marie Woods: How Black History saved my life

Created on Monday, 18 February 2019   »Podcast

Toronto-based artist Anne-Marie Woods, aka Amani, speaks about her two current plays as well as her journey of self-learning and community outreach through the arts.

Mary Poppins with a twist: An interview with Thom Allison

Created on Saturday, 29 December 2018   »Arts

Young People's Theatre's holidays production of the Mary Poppins musical, based on the stories penned by P.L. Travers and the 1964 Disney film, has broken all YPT sales records in the its 53-year history since it hit the company's main stage in early November. The show, featuring 14 cast members and 90 costumes, can still be seen until January 6.

I recently caught up with the show's director, Thom Allison, and immediately delved into the impact of staging a multiethnic cast, including a black Mary Poppins, played by the award-winning Vanessa Sears, for a young audience.

Allison highlighted that cultural diversity has always been part and parcel of Young People's Theatre's mandate. "They were really adamant. They really wanted the production to have as much diversity as possible," as Allison explained. "The casting process was amazing. We knew we wanted it to be very mixed racially and to have everyone in there. We wanted the kids in the audience to see the diversity of Toronto and really reflect it."

As I joked with Thom, this is not the Mary Poppins I remember growing up in the seventies!

The YPT production has kept the familiar story line and the unforgettable songs like Chim Chim Cher-ee and Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious, but the Edwardian characteristics of the Banks family have certainly been spiced up. 

Sharing an interesting anecdote about this, Allison says:

"One of the things I love about the show is that, we managed to get Jewelle Blackman — who is playing Mrs. Banks. She's an old pal of mine for years. She came in, and she said, 'I've never done an English accent before.' And I said, 'Well, you know, try it.' She tried, and it was fine.

Then I said: 'What other accents do you do?' She goes: 'Oh my god, it's my mother.' Her mother is from Trinidad. I said: “Go, for it!” So she read the scenes with a Trinidadian accent. The choreographer and I were like, "Oh my god, that's it!” That's opened the whole play up."

So it turned out that Mr. Banks, played by Shane Carty, a white actor, is married to a fabulous, black Trinidadian woman. "This gives a whole different level to the kind of man that he is," as Allison added. In addition, the son of the Banks family, Michael, is played by Hailey Lewis — a black actress. 

"So the whole family is mixed."

"It's been a really wonderful and joyous thing to have the diversity that the kids are seeing on stage; and see them experience that, knowing that they recognize their own families. ... There's no boundaries for them."



Young People's Theatre – Mary Poppins
Until January 6

Mainstage (Susan Rubes) Theatre 
165 Front Street East 
Toronto ON M5A 3Z4

$10-$54. Recommended for ages 5 and up.


Djanet Sears on "for colored girls"

Created on Sunday, 28 October 2018   »Arts

Over the past weekend, we learned the sad news of the passing of pioneering playwright, poet and novelist Ntozake Shange. Her landmark choreopoem, “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf,” has profoundly touched, and spoken to, generations of black women.

Shange died in her sleep, on the morning of October 27, 2018, at the assisted living facility where she resided in Bowie, MD after having previously suffered multiple strokes. Her sister, Ifa Bayeza, was quoted as saying: “It’s a huge loss for the world. I don’t think there’s a day on the planet when there’s not a young woman who discovers herself through the words of my sister.”

Earlier this year, AfroToronto.com caught up with renowned African-Canadian thespian and theatre director, Djanet Sears. We discussed her work directing Soulpepper Theatre's staging of "for colored girls" last year at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts in Toronto, on the occasion of her Outstanding Direction nomination at the 39th Annual Dora Mavor Moore Awards.

Sears recalls seeing the original production of "for colored girls" on Broadway as a university student. It was an incredibly fulfilling time for her as, within a period of a few years, she had read and seen the two most successful Broadway productions by African-American women at the time -- namely: Lorraine Hansberry’s “A Raisin in the Sun” (the first black play that Sears had ever read; which debuted on Broadway in 1959) and Ntozake Shange's “for colored girls who have considered suicide / when the rainbow is enuf” (premiering on Broadway's Booth Theatre in 1976).

"It just struck me. "for colored girls" was a production that really struck me to the very core," as Sears shared. 

"It spoke about black women's experiences from a range of perspectives. It wasn't that black women were one thing, a monolith, and we all experienced the same thing. These stories that the play tells were being told from the very soul of the writer. Because of the quality of the writing, and the poetry of the writing, the stories reached across the stage into the audience and just penetrated the hearts of the audience."

Indeed, at the time that this play was first produced, and first written, this kind of work was very rarely done. Its multi-narrative format was thought extravagant. The play told many stories, 20 in total, in the form of a series of poems complemented by choreographed movement and set to a musical background.

It's a choreopoem. A story being told through movement and sound.

Seven nameless black women, only identified by their assigned colours (lady in red, lady in orange, lady in yellow, lady in green, lady in blue, lady in brown, and lady in purple) spoke of powerful themes like sexual and domestic violence, abortion and abandonment.

On staging the show in Toronto and its continued relevance

When Sears got the call in the autumn of 2016 from Soulpepper Theatre's then artistic director, suggesting to work together on staging the play in Toronto, Sears did not hesitate.

"Even though the play premiered over 40 years ago, we're still just scratching the surface," said Sears.

While she's a believer that the arc of history bends toward justice, and this bend might be long, Sears points out that "we have to stay committed to it."

"Things change, and some things have changed, but then they move back. It's often one step forward and two steps back. ... I also think that what's a bit different nowadays is that I believe more men are joining the women in supporting their stories, their rights to have those stories, and to tell those stories."

"Still, systemic barriers to full access continue to exist which prevent women from telling their own truths and to be believed. How may women directors are there? How many women producers? How many women are executives?"

Despite these challenges, Sears is optimistic about the future of inclusive storytelling. "I think there are more talented theatre creatives and actors and of colour than ever before," she said. "What I worry about is the gatekeepers who are in control of the arts sector."

What's needed is the establishment of a policy that ensures constant access for creatives of colour.

"What happens is, it often depends on who's there. If they're inclusionary, we'll be included. If they're not, that's a decade lost to us participating in that theatre. We need proper policy that's people-resistant."

"We are fully integrated in society and we want to be fully integrated in society as reflected in our arts. We also have cultural nuances that are beautiful."

Standing in an Afrofuturistic B-girl stance

Created on Saturday, 13 October 2018   »Arts

Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape -- an Obsidian Theatre production, presented in partnership with Soulpepper Theatre -- written and performed by multidisciplinarian spoken word artist Motion, and infused by enthralling musical soundscapes of DJ L’Oqenz, is currently running at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (50 Tank House Lane) until October 20, 2018.

This is the story of two Toronto-bred young women, Motion as the B-Girl and L’Oqenz as the DJ, navigating through life and their womanhood in search of agency. Their quest is set through the background and history of the beats, music, rhymes and song lyrics that have come to shape their identity.

Directed by Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, Oraltorio is set in an Afrofuturistc aesthetic realm where the worlds of spoken word, emceeing and DJing coalesce. The visually stimulating theatrical universe created by André du Toit’s lighting, and grounded in the hip hop-inspired catacombs of Jackie Chau’s set, add unmistakable character to the show's auditory journey.

"The show was born out of a lot of my own, as well as L’Oqenz's, experiences with music and growing up around music, around the evolution of hip hop, and being inspired by black women artists and musicians," as Motion recently explained to AfroToronto.com. "As well as the role that music has played in the lives and history of people from the African diaspora. The collective experience of a people."

Digging back into the roots

Delving a bit deeper into the origins of Oraltorio, Motion recalls a collaboration show she worked on years ago for the Urban Music Awards, called Musik, where she charted the evolution of the connections between the griots of West Africa all the way to the emcees of hip hop culture.

"That piece inspired me to continue writing a larger work that would blend soundscape with words and with theatre -- to look at the role that music and sound have played as tools of resistance against silencing in black women's lives," as Motion explained. "I would say that's definitely the genesis of Oraltorio."

DJ L'Oqenz (back) and MOTION. Photo: Cesar Ghisilieri

She soon joined forces with DJ L'Oquenz after this epiphany to work together on creating the soundscape and the music for it. "We really thought about the concept of a theatrical mixtape," she said. The idea was to dramatize a mixtape where the iconic sounds from the DJ culture they both grew up with would be overlayered with soundbites, sung or spoken, from different flavours and stories.

"What we've grown to understand through this creative process is just the fluidity of how this work can live. It can live with one mic and a DJ; and it can live in its full production experience with the visuals and working with choreographers and movement specialists," said Motion. "There's so many different ways and formats through which we've been able to find the story and find how different audiences can experience it."

As the concept grew from inception to its current form, various versions of Oraltorio saw the light of day over the years in places like b current's Rock.Paper.Sistahz Festival, readings at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's Rhubard Festival, the Piece of Mine Festival, and its first full production as part of Why Not Theatre's Riser Project -- which took place at the Theatre Centre in 2016.

Also in 2016, Motion and L'Oquenz had the opportunity to travel to Ghana with the Northern Griots Network to showcase Oraltorio at the Chale Wote Street Art Festival, as well as the Nkabom Literary Festival.

"Our Ghana experience was great because we actually found ourselves at the birthplace of so much of the musical inspiration that we touch upon in Oraltorio," as Motion shared. They performed to a large audience as part of the closing night of the Chale Wote Festival.

"To be surrounded and immersed in so much artistic expression was really inspirational. It just deepened our connection to the rhythm of the piece; to the ancestry of Oraltorio. Showing that no matter where you go in the world where you find people of the African diaspora, there are audible ties that connect us [through] the way that we express ourselves. [Be it through] spirituality, though dance, through survival, through protesting disparity, through the quest for freedom."

"What we also continue to connect to is the cross-generational strength through which, despite how often we are silenced, or our voices are dampened, we find ways to be heard. So Oraltorio is an ode to that resistance."


Show info:

Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape

Runs to October 20. $25-$35.
Young Centre for the Performing Arts
50 Tank House Lane, Toronto ON, M5A 3C4



Honouring our theatrical classics

Created on Tuesday, 29 May 2018   »Arts

An interview with Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, the director of Ma Rainey's Black Bottom at Soulpepper Theatre

Soulpepper Theatre's currently running production of August Wilson's Ma Rainey's Black Bottom has been receiving great reviews and, by popular demand, was extended to Saturday, June 9th, 2018. AfroToronto caught up with the show's director, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, to discuss the significance and timeliness of remounting this play, set in 1920's Chicago, for the first time in Canada since Ma Rainey's role was performed by Canadian jazz legend Jackie Richardson back in the mid-1980's -- shortly after the play premiered on Broadway in 1984.

"For me it’s hugely important because you have this powerful black woman in the centre who is running her own band and who is fighting to have agency against every pushback that she is getting from the bigger world around her; and from inside this white recording studio," said Mumbi.

Born in 1882, Gertrude Pridgett, "Ma" Rainey, earned her reputation as the "Mother of the Blues." She was part of the first generation of blues singers to record with a major label. The nascent blues scene of Chicago at the dawn of the last century was born out of the northward migration of African-Americans fleeing the oppression of the Post-Reconstruction-era Deep South.

Chicago was seen as the promised land but many obstacles and challenges would also await this new generation of formerly enslaved people. They brought the blues, which originated in the southern plantations, along with them up into the north. The popularity of the black music genre was not left unnoticed by record companies in Chicago.


Ma Rainey's Black Bottom, set inside a recording studio, explores the still-relevant problems of cultural exploitation, racial inequalities and economic empowerment. The studio can in fact be seen as a microcosm of the real-world realities faced by people of African-descent in their fight for agency.

"I think that in terms of looking at how radical that was in the 1920’s for a woman like Ma Rainey to do what she was doing. And now you look at what does it mean in the context of the women’s rights movement, what is the black female’s experience within that," said Mumbi.

There are also unmistakable parallels with today's music industry.

"For me, because I grew up listening to hip hop, I think there’s a lot of parallels between Ma Rainey and black female MC’s today and how they have to fight for power and for agency and also what that means in the context of the larger black community and the larger Western community. That for me is big," as Mumbi added.

Ownership of cultural legacy

One of the main questions is: How is it possible to maintain one's culture when our culture becomes profitable? How do black artists retain control of their collective cultural identity as they create and operate within an industrialized, capitalist society?

"What is the cost of participating in the marketing of your own culture? And how do you still hold on to who you are and what you’re about as you kind of do this dance as all artists have to do," as Mumbi further asks. These are important considerations in a context where it's suddenly cool to be black, or when black culture is selling.

Within the universe of August Wilson's play, the only one set in Chicago as part of his ten-play-series, The Pittsburgh Cycle, the blues is the foundation of that black cultural experience post-slavery.

"It’s very much the same, nothing has changed. That’s what make it so incredible and shocking. August Wilson was writing this in the 1980’s and he was saying we can’t understand our current situation without looking at where we came from," said Mumbi.

Reviving the classics at Soulpepper

Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu has been running her own theatre company for a few years, doing a lot of new work and creating new stories with people from her community. The opportunity of working with Soulpepper gave her a chance to look into the classics of drama. She particularly looked forward to investigating and developing her craft by not only looking at classics from the Western canon but to also delve into those classics about the black experience.

"It was a really huge privilege to work with Djanet Sears on For Coloured Girls and to now be given an opportunity to direct this play by August Wilson. Because, again, it was those writers who are so seminal to modern drama; but they’re coming from investigating what it means to be a black person in the Western world," as Mumbi expressed.

"We so rarely get to tell stories that are great classics about our cultural experience. Everyone in the Ma Rainey's Black Bottom cast is so invested in the story. Everyone is bringing their all to it. All the music is live and so there’s just a lot of commitment to bringing every aspects of this story alive," she added.


Catch Ma Rainey's Black Bottom until June 9 at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, 50 Tank House Lane.

Show info and tickets

Young, queer, black and free in foreign

Created on Saturday, 05 May 2018   »Arts

An interview with emerging artist daniel jelani ellis about his show speaking of sneaking

One of the central characteristics of the immigrant experience is the need to define one's place in a new land, and new culture, while finding the best way of incorporating, or not, one's own cultural roots into a new narrative. In his play speaking of sneaking, Jamaican-born and raised emerging artist daniel jelani ellis, who has immigrated to Canada in 2004, explores those themes -- also incorporating his queer identity. Playing at the Theatre Centre until May 11, as part Why Not Theatre's The RISER Project 2018, speaking of sneaking investigates the complex relationship between immigration and displacement, yard and foreign, home and abroad. The play is directed by d’bi.young anitafrika and choreographed by Brian Solomon.

Speaking to AfroToronto recently, daniel took us back through the evolution of the play. I learned that working on speaking of sneaking gave him an outlet to stay grounded in his culture at times when he felt disconnected from home.

"It was an outlet where I could be Jamaican on my own terms," as he shared.

When Buddies in Bad Time Theatre artistic director Evalyn Parry asked daniel at the genesis of his journey to come up with a central question he wished to explore, at the time it was: "What is the language of an uprooted black queer body."

This exploration would essentially delve into specifically verbal language and daniel's ability, as well as the character’s ability, to code switch from speaking Jamaican nation language, to English with a Jamaican accent, to English with a Canadian accent.

"Those are still things that I’m fascinated by and exploring in this piece but I expanded it to include physical vocabulary and movement. But looking at same ways that code switching occurs. What happens to your body? How to you switch up … how the choreography plays into it," he said.

Finding his voice and artistic identity

The journey which ultimately led to speaking of sneaking, in its current form, began when daniel successfully applied to be part of Buddies in Bad Times Theatre's Emerging Creators Unit in 2012. Selected to be one of only four participants, each paired with a director, he was tasked to write a 25-minute show for the Rhubarb Festival. Previous to that, he had taken part in PrideCab, a program for queer youth at Buddies, where he was able to examine how his own queer identity fit within the collective queer history. He described these formative experience at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre as "a really useful, healing and awesome space for me."

As an associate director for Black Boys and Dark Love at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, he also admittedly faced his own misconceptions and prejudices about blackness.

"A whole important aspect of what Black Boys was exploring was that blackness is not a monolith. I was realizing that, yeah, some of my ideas about blackness is aligned with that. ... I think the Caribbean queer identity is a bit of a unique identity."

"It’s been a tough thing to reconcile. I don’t think it’s fully reconciled. It’s a constant negotiation," as he acknowledges.

Even after moving to Canada, it would be an illusion to believe that homophobia would not be an issue anymore. Racism is another form of oppression that is encountered. How can blackness and queerness coexist? "Apparently not in foreign," he said.

"In my experience, it's a matter of finding your own community and taking up the space. At first it may seem pretty isolating and that there is no space but it's there. It takes initiative but there is a community," as he expressed.

Finding meaning and purpose as "the other"

Following his experience at the Emerging Creators Unit, daniel felt more determined than ever to pursue and hone his craft. He felt that if he were to be taken seriously he needed to get proper training. He had previously dropped out of a theatre studies program at UofT after two years because of the lack of hands-on and practical experience he was getting. Since he ultimately did obtain that experience at Buddies, he felt he was ready to pursue his studies at the National Theatre School in Montreal.

While at NTS, the intensive nature of the program (six days a week and twelve-hour days) allowed him only to work on speaking of sneaking during his down time. Nevertheless, it was a necessary thing for him to continue pursuing. "I was feeling very disconnected from my home and my culture," as he recalled.

It was a way to force himself to go outside of the NTS community bubble and forge friendships with people outside of that overwhelmingly white space and mingle with diverse and queer people. Describing his experience as the only black member of his NTS class, daniel recounts:

"It was really challenging. I was finding that it’s either I was the authority on all things black, on all things Caribbean and all things Jamaican. As the only black person in my class I was looked upon to speak on those things. But then, in the same breath, I was also asked to leave all that at the door at the same time."

"There are expectations that there’s a general way that we’re all going to be trained and there’s no room for any analysis of your intersecting identities. They don’t want to hear that I’m a Jamaican who had just been living here for eight years and a queer person. They didn’t want to hear any of that. Unless we were reading a play that featured black people and then they were looking to me to speak to it."

"It was a very complex time for me and a source of lots of anxiety. And this is where speaking of sneaking was an outlet for me."

An opportunity to revisit the story

After graduating from the National Theatre School, daniel heard about a call out from the festival director at Rhubarb, Mel Hague, for a new program she was mounting called The Rhubarb Haunted House. It was a space for old works that had premiered at Rhubarb, a festival highlighting new works, to be revisited.

It was a great opportunity for daniel to pick up speaking of sneaking from where he had left off.

“So I was working on it and from a new place after having trained at NTS and spent more time as a Canadian, as a theatre artist, I found that my experiences were different,” daniel said.

He submitted an application and was invited to be part of the installation.

"I rediscovered my interest and my excitement for it. I continued to expand it because it was only twenty-five minutes at the time." 

He feels honoured to have this latest incarnation of speaking of sneaking being directed by d'bi.young anitafrika. “It is awesome, it is truly truly a dream come true,” as he expressed. Just a few months after moving to Canada, he recalls seeing d'bi perform on stage in early 2005 as part of Da Kink in My Hair.

“It was a landmark moment for me. I saw d’bi on stage; she was a standout in that production and ever since that moment I drew inspiration from her, aspired to her incredible artistry," he said.

After following her ever since, he finally had a chance to perform with d'bi in her show Lukumi: A Dub Opera. "That was another landmark moment. I could see her work on a thing she had created. So yes, now it feels like another level in terms of sharing a space with her. What I’m most grateful for and aspire to is her integrity, her artistry and her humanity. They are all wrapped up."

An important aspect of the dramaturgy and their collaboration is the use the Anitafrika Method in the crafting of the piece. “This is a system that she also uses for life coaching to help people in self-actualization so they can really realize the full potential of themselves,” as daniel explained.

"It’s not entertainment done for entertainment’s sake. Yes it going to be entertaining; but it’s also going to be really reflective and introspective and a bit antagonizing in the sense that it will hopefully cause me to want to be agitated about things that we’re identifying. All this I credit to d’bi."


speaking of sneaking
created and performed by daniel jelani ellis
directed by d’bi.young anitafrika | choreographed by Brian Solomon
May 2-11, 2018
an sos collective production

All Tickets Pay What You Can Afford $5 – $20 – $35 – $60*
To purchase tickets, call 416.538.0988 or visit tickets.theatrecentre.org



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