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  • Few people I've come across have mastered the art of the side hustle like Toronto-based creative director and art curator, Ashley McKenzie-Barnes. In fact, she's been so successful at simultaneously managing her established corporate career within Toronto's vibrant advertising agency world and her numerous passion projects — spanning well-know community initiatives such as The Remix Project, Manifesto and Honey Jam — that it's hard to see where the side hustle starts and ends.

    "I'm literally split in half," as she told me. "I always say that I have a very unique bridge between that community work, that art and culture space and the corporate agencies."

    "I'm lucky to say that a lot of the times they've supported each other, and the cross-over has been great. It has amounted to both spaces [bringing in] bigger and better work, from an expanded point of view," as she further shared.

    One of those exciting projects on the horizon is the reason why I got in touch with her.

    Repping Scarborough

    McKenzie-Barnes has been selected as the curator for a city-produced exhibition of the all-night art festival, Nuit Blanche Toronto 2019, in Scarborough.

    Her exhibition, entitled Queens and Kings in Scarborough, which is described as a theatrical playground that challenges the constructs of systematic social marginalization, will gravitate around Scarborough Town Center.

    "If I'm going to do it anywhere it's going to be in Scarborough," McKenzie-Barnes said. Having grown up in Scarborough, she knows that it's a hotbed of culture that is unfortunately often overlooked.

    "We've had some superstar talent come out of there like OVO and XO; we've had Doc McKinney coming out of there who's the producer of The Weeknd, and some of The Weeknd's crew; and 40 of OVO. It's just like, you know, you don't really ever credit Scarborough as an art and culture space — even though it's huge."

    She kept referring to the theme of "bringing back history" through the Queens and Kings in Scarborough exhibit.

    "The biggest thing for me is how am I telling the story of high art; how am I telling the story of a contemporary art space."

     

    Telling a new story through art

    In illustrating her point, McKenzie-Barnes refers to renowned artist Kehinde Wiley — who has been known to portray black males, rappers and celebrities within historical settings of white European art and aesthetics. 

    "I went to an art high school when I was younger, and I remember studying art history. At the time, you don't really think too much of it. But as you get older, you realize [that] your textbooks [have] zero reference to any people of colour — as artists or any black art; or [even] other art [apart from] white European art. That's what I grew up studying.... Opera, the Renaissance, and the [top Italian and Spanish artists.]"

    "So I wanted to do [the Nuit Blanche exhibit] in a theatrical theme — where I [would be] referencing the people's court, the royal rotunda, the amphitheatre, ancient Greek and Western European art spaces; but doing it in a first and second generation influenced and inhabited space."

    "Doing it with high art which was solely focused on black, South Asian, Arab and native artists. So it completely flips everything. That's where the theme comes from."

    McKenzie-Barnes' goal for Nuit Blanche 2019 Scarborough is to bring on people who have some messages to share which place the patrons, the people of the community, at the center of the artistic experience. While the exhibit will feature Scarborough natives, the idea is to expand the conversation by featuring diverse artists from across the country and even the world.

    Among them will be Canadian indigenous artists like Kent Monkman and Jordan Bennett. She also looks forward to bringing in Jamaican artist Ebony G. Patterson — whom McKenzie-Barnes credits for doing incredible work right now in the contemporary art space.

    "Our West Indian community is thriving in Scarborough," as she points out. A large portion of the community is unaware that we have these highly influential contemporary artists.

    "[These artists are usually being] seen at OCAD downtown or in Art Toronto. These [are often] unattainable and unreachable places for the community. They don't go to these places."

    "So when you think of where Ebony G. Patterson has been placed in our city... there's a disconnect."

    "A lot of that was in the forethought when putting in my pitch to the city. That's why I came up with Queens and Kings in Scarborough."

    The power of representation

    McKenzie-Barnes is only too aware of the power of representation. As a young woman, she remembers being immensely inspired by seeing Sway Magazine, the African-Canadian-focused glossy magazine formerly published by Torstar, in the green boxes on the streets of the city. 

    As a graphic design student at the time, her goal was to work for the magazine.

    "That was the only space, as a young person, where I ever saw a reflection of myself. I saw this as something that I could look to. [It had] meaning to me as a young person of colour," as she recounted.

    She eventually reached her goal of working for the magazine.

    "Sway Magazine was that one publication where I got to bang out work that was a reflection of myself and where I saw myself fit."

    Breaking down creative doors

    "Outside of [Sway], every other job I got agency-wise — graphic design jobs, in-house design jobs — [had] very minimal reflections of myself within the work and within my peers. You kind of learn to navigate in it because "it is" a job. As a young black person, you cannot allow that to be a hindrance if this is your chosen field."

    Having gained nine years of experience in the corporate agency world, McKenzie-Barnes has gone on to work as a creative strategist and creative director on large international campaigns such as the Scotiabank Pride marketing initiative. She's currently the Director of Creative Operations at FleishmanHillard HighRoad.

    She acknowledges that it's been a challenge at times not to see herself reflected through her corporate career. In comparison to her work as an independent curator, her experiences in the agency world have been starkly divergent.

    "There's a significant difference in the people that I see. It's always been like that. I've never entered into an agency space where it's any different," said McKenzie-Barnes.

    "For me, it's been about the work.... I was very adamant about understanding that space doesn't have a lot of myself in it; so, therefore, I need to make space in it so that I'm breaking down that door."

    "As it stands, you may have to break down that door and be that person for somebody else if you're not seeing it yourself."

    This is why McKenzie-Barnes aims to make effective use of her position, both as an industry leader and educator, to help build bridges — which are currently sorely lacking — between young black creatives in the city and the corporate agency world.

    "I've been working with young designers of colour and I take them with me where I go. I work with them on a freelance level. I'm here to be that mentor for them. To let them know [they] do have people to look into as female creative directors — nevermind male — female black creative directors that are in this job — even though [they] don't necessarily see it."

     

  • "Were there is music, dance always is. It becomes part of the storytelling," said Toronto-based multidimensional performing artist Nicole Brooks, while speaking to AfroToronto.com about the long tradition of Caribbean and African dance. Brooks is the creator of Obeah Opera -- a musical retelling of the legendary Salem witch trials from the fascinating perspective of Caribbean slave women. It was recently featured as part of the Fall for Dance North festival, one of Canada's leading international dance showcases. Obeah Opera had also been on the international spotlight for its world premiere at PANAMANIA, held in Toronto back in 2015.

    Since its inception as a 10-minute show at Rock.Paper.Sistahz in b current's 2008-2009 seasons, Obeah Opera has grown significantly. "After the 2015 Pan-Am games, I was determined to have the show mounted again," said Brooks. "It was the first time that I was able to get the play to about two hours, and it's the closest to my vision; but it's still not my vision."

    Nicole Brooks

    Brooks' aim is to break the traditional mold of theatrical productions in Canada where it's often a challenge to obtain institutional or government support to remount the same work. She knew that while Toronto's mini olympics represented an awesome platform, Obeah Opera had not attained its full fruition. She merely had a blueprint to make this play Broadway-type and Broadway-bound.

    "People ask me all the time: What's your next work? My response is this work is not done. I'm going to continue pushing this work until it's finished.... I just feel really privileged that I've been afforded the opportunity to have this work evolve."

    The Fall for Dance North festival (which ran October 2–6, 2018), offered Brooks the opportunity to really focus of bringing out, and refining, the dance elements of Obeah Opera. It was also an expressed requirement from the festival's artistic director that the show be performed with live music in order to give the audience the full experience.

    Rather than an excerpt of the play, Fall for Dance North was a compilation. "We picked various materials and music from the play and looked at the different types of dances that we could put in -- with the emphasis on Caribbean traditional and African traditional," as Brooks noted.

    Brooks expressed how proud she was to showcase the work of choreographer Anthony 'Prime' Guerra on such a prominent stage. "I looked at this as a platform to introduce the work, to introduce myself, and to introduce Prime to a new world of dance and letting them experience something very different," she said.

    Anthony Prime Guerra

    "As the writer of the work and with music as my forte, having Anthony 'Prime' Guerra really concentrate on the dance, and have that become an integral part of the storytelling, is going to make the work catastrophically better."

    Through the process, they looked at different Caribbean islands and regions of the African continent for dance and movement inspiration.

    "All of our storytelling as Caribbean and I'll say emphatically African people tell stories through dance, music and drama. It's never separated. So there's a call for me towards that; and I'm really excited about the creative journey," said Brooks.

    After Fall for Dance North, her goal is now to "go into a very intense dramaturge session for about two to three months to develop the rest of the work." She has further plans for Obeah Opera spanning from next year, marking her tenth year on this work, to beyond. Some of the dance numbers developed for Fall for Dance North will be in the final iteration of the play.

    "Once I get the play where it needs to be, it will be its final version ready to tour. I have my eye set specifically on South Africa as a first stop," as Brooks stated. "The choreographer and I really pinpointed various sections, integral pieces, where we're going to develop the dance -- which is very exciting for me." 

    "We're bringing it; we're bringing the colour and we're bringing the melanin."

     

  • 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."

  • The inaugural 3-day Toronto Spoken Soul Fest is taking place from August 16-18, 2019 at the 918 Bathurst Centre for Culture, Arts, Media and Education in Toronto. Created by the SpokenSoulTO Collective, comprised of multifaceted Toronto artists Dwayne Morgan, Paulina O'Kieffe-Anthony and Randelll Adjei, the festival aims to provide an annual platform for talented black poets, storytellers, musicians, and signers.

  • Frances-Anne Solomon will have a say in who is recognized at next year's ceremony


    When Frances-Anne Solomon received an email from filmmaker Ava DuVernay letting her know she was being invited to the Oscars academy, she thought someone was pulling her leg. 

    "I thought it was a hoax," she told Matt Galloway with a laugh on CBC Radio's Metro Morning. "I showed it around my office and everybody thought it was a joke." 

    Read more

  • 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.

    theatre

    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

  • Women and gender non-conforming artists came together to commemorate how far we've come — and where we can go. Source: Amanda Parris, CBC Arts.

    Read

  • 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.

    Tickets

  • 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.

  • Toronto is the most diverse city in the world. You cannot have a successful business designing for your audiences if you don’t have the cultural competency to understand the different ways in which they will resonate with your message. The only way in which you can confidently do that is if the diversity of your staffing reflects the diversity of the city itself.

    "Everything that we design is tied to cultural values and cultural meaning that we build into the things that we make," said Dr. Elizabeth (Dori) Tunstall as Dean of the Faculty of Design at OCAD University. She is the first black Dean of a Faculty of Design anywhere.

    In this interview, she talks to AfroToronto.com about her work as a design anthropologist and on using her position to open doors for others.

  • Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape -- anObsidian Theatre production, presented in partnership withSoulpepper Theatre -- written and performed by multidisciplinarian spoken word artist Motion, and infused by enthralling musical soundscapes of DJ L’Oqenz, is currently running at theYoung 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

    Tickets

     

  • Shadeism, sometimes also called colourism, is an insidious form of discrimination based on skin tone. In the black community it's the cause and result of generational trauma, even within families, creating situations where lighter-skinned and darker-skinned people of colour are treated differently. In her deeply personal original dance/theatre piece, Shades, currently running until September 30 at Factory Theatre, Ghanaian-Canadian dancer, choreographer and playwright Esie Mensah examines this multi-layered dynamic.

    "I had the original idea for the show back in 2015. It was something that I think I was just pulling from my own personal experiences. Things that I had gone through," as Esie explained. The current full-length production is the result of a two-year evolution from the show's debut in September 2016. 

    It was important for Esie to go deeper in her exploration, beyond the usual surface stereotypes heard too often like: "You're so pretty for a dark-skinned girl" or the plague of bleaching products. She immersed herself in research by engaging into a lot of conversations with family members, friends and acquaintances -- realizing how deeply rooted and engrained this issue was for many people.

    "Obviously, when you're going through something like shadeism, it's not often that you're having conversations with people about it," as she related. It opened up many questions:

    "How did we end up being fragmented? How did we end up being so disconnected as centuries have gone by? How did that happen? We were once a people that loved each other; how did we end up now looking at each other with hatred in our eyes; or with microaggression getting thrown at each other without really realizing it."

    Shades represents Esie's effort to get at the root of all this; and using this subconscious deep-dive to help take ourselves on a journey outward from that. 

    “Because it's such a daunting subject, to really understand how you can shape it and manoeuvre it without feeling completely disabled was really difficult,” said Esie.

    Unearthing generational trauma

    The pivotal conversations which were necessary to unearth the generational trauma, whether the participants acknowledge it or not, represented the biggest obstacle in creating this work, as Esie explained. This internal discovery process also included the participation of the cast of Shades.

    Part of this preparatory work involved mentoring sessions over the course of a week with D’bi Young Anitafrika. The dancers learned from the Anitafrika method for three days and Esie spent the entire week with her -- including one-on-one time.

    Working with the cast of Shades with the amazing D’Bi Young Anitafrika (bottom center) and Akosua Amo-Adem (bottom left). Cast from left to right: Allyson Trunzer, Percy Anane-Dwumfour, Shakeil Rollock, Tereka Tyler-Davis, Miranda Liverpool, Roney Lewis, Esie Mensah. Source: TorontoGuardian.com

    "I always thought that I needed to be there to catch [that moment of realization] for my dancers and for the people that I was working with," as Esie shared. "It's a matter of standing beside them and allowing whatever that is coming out of them to flow out. I think it's going to be the same thing for people who will see the show. It's going to trigger a lot." 

    "Some might say in an unhealthy way. But I feel that it's really healthy because it's addressing the things that we've developed since childhood; issue we've developed since before we were born; the microaggressions that are just so deep."

    Storytelling in the form of dance, movement and the stage

    Another challenge in telling the story of Shades on stage, as a dance/theatre piece, was finding and developing cast members who are equally at ease with storytelling through dance, movement and theatrical performance. Making everything work together seamlessly is not as easy as people think.

    Esie has a long track record as a professional dancer. She has performed with established names like Jannelle Monae, Marian’s Trench, Nelly Furtado, Estee Lauder, Flo Rida, Jully Black, Fashion Cares, Deborah Cox, Anjulie, Cascada and more.

    But Esie also has a multidisciplinary focus which leads her to spread her artistic expression through dance, movement and the stage.

    From the 2018 Rhubarb Festival. Photo by Dahlia Katz

    In the past, she has worked with theatre practitioners like Philip Akin and Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu (Ma Rainey's Black Bottom) -- whom Esie credits for drawing her into theatre. She picked up some valuable skills working with Philip Akin at the Shaw Festival -- where they worked with a diverse cast of eight people, ranging from the ages of 20 up to 60-70 years old.

    "Directing is really similar to choreography because both involve manoeuveuring people on stage and within a space," as Esie explained. "A lot of dancers and choreographers end up becoming directors."

    It's all about getting people to be comfortable with where they're at.

    Similarly with Shades, it's not about getting the cast members to be like her. Dance is what Esie does full-time; her experience is also her own. What it's about is getting the performers to understand the root and intention of the work.

    "So that way, whatever response comes out of your body naturally will be authentic to you," as Esie would tell them.

    "You're kind of getting people to move out of their comfort zone and moving in a new space. It's about giving people that permission to explore themselves realistically."

    "So I think in terms of myself I've developed a gift of being able to get people to feel comfortable in their own skin.... If I can get people spiritually in tune and their spirit connected, I always believe that people can make magic from it."

     

    Show information

    Shades
    September 27 to 30, 2018
    Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, Ontario.

    Tickets:
    General Admission - $35.00
    Student/Senior/Arts Worker - $25.00

    Show Times:
    September 27 at 8:00pm Premiere
    September 28 at 1:00pm Matinee 
    September 28 at 8:00pm
    September 29 at 8:00pm
    September 30 at 4:00pm Matinee

     

     

  • 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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