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  • The Toronto Black Film Festival, running from February 14 to 19, will be showcasing a series of short films as part of its overall program. These captivating cinematic short stories are as much a part of the TBFF experience as the feature films.

    AfroToronto recently spoke to one of the directors of this year's narrative shorts, Dean Leon Anderson. Speaking to him over the phone from his home base in London, UK, he spoke of his excitement about having his 2016 film, Class 15, showcased at the Toronto Black Film Festival. The film chronicles a tense parent-teacher evening at a secondary school where a difficult student makes accusations against her teacher in front of her mother.

    After spending about eight years working in television industry in England, starting out as an intern at MTV UK and working his way up, Anderson decided to make use of the skills he learned to pursue his passion for film writing and directing.

    The idea for the short film came out of a personal experience while in school. The setting was also a really intense parent-teacher evening.

    “The whole thing was that my teacher wanted me to drop one of my courses and focus my attention on my other two subjects. That's something that I didn't want to to do, and my mum felt the same way. So, there was a lot of tension between the three of us in this one classroom,” as Anderson explained.

    He ended up proving the teacher wrong by passing the class. Years later, her felt the need to share this story on screen. “I try to make personal stories. I really believe that the best films come from personal stories, so that's kind of what I'm focusing on at the moment,” he said.

    Class 15 takes a different twist as it follows a young girl named Alicia over a 10-year period. “You'll see what happens with her family, the separation between her parents and then you'll basically get an idea of why there is tension in the classroom ten years later.”

    Although the Class 15 has made its rounds of various film festivals since its 2016 release, this will be the film's Canadian premiere. When asked how the film has been received so far, especially by black audiences in Britain and the U.S., Anderson said: "It's interesting how people react differently to certain parts of the movie. I guess a black audience can perhaps relate to and understand certain aspects... You know like some of the things they may say, or the way the mother looks at her daughter. A black audience will pick up on certain things."

    To close off our conversation, I asked Anderson what advice he had for aspiring filmmakers. His advice was to just be productive and continue making things. You will learn what your voice is by just doing. One of the best pieces of advice her ever got after leaving the TV industry and just waiting in vain for responses from funding agencies was when a TV director told him to invest in himself. "It really clicked for me," as Anderson recalled. "So I went out and bought a DSLR camera, got a couple of friends together, got some editing equipment and just went from there."

    “I’ve got connections with a proper crew now. I wouldn't have that if I didn't start from very small. Maybe a small film in a day or two. I did my first film in a day. That was six minutes. So, you can do these things. You just don't need a lot of money for that.” 

    Catch Class 15 as part of the TBFF Short Series 4 on Saturday, February 17, 2018 at 9:00 p.m. at Carlton Cinemas (20 Carlton Street, Toronto).

     

  • Deloitte LLP was listed last year in the Globe and Mail among Canada’s best companies to find strength in diversity. The article mentions a number of diverse workforce initiatives such as the Canadian Black Professionals Network (CBPN). Just last month, Deloitte Canada issued a report which stated that "inclusion is the key to unlocking the potential" of their business and people. "Organizations must choose to fundamentally change their culture -- their way of acting and being," as the report further emphasizes. 

    In a recent Maclean's article entitled "Can white male CEOs bring diversity to corporate Canada?," Deloitte Canada's CEO and chief inclusion officer, Frank Vettese, recognized his own biases. He also penned his thoughts in a op-ed entitled "White on Bay Street: Corporate Canada must do more."

    AfroToronto recently spoke to Suzanne Balima, an African-Canadian consultant at Deloitte. She is involved with the Canadian Black Professionals Network (CBPN) at Deloitte, where she leads talent relations. Basically, Suzanne helps facilitate the recruitment of black professionals straight out of university, as well as experienced hires. She strives to make the community of black professionals in the GTA aware of career opportunities at Deloitte.

    Suzanne Balima - Consultant, Deloitte Digital“Where possible, I also try to connect them with Deloitte professionals to help them develop their network,” she said.

    The Canadian Black Professionals Network (CBPN) is a Community group within Deloitte. It aims to provide a networking platform for employees of African descent and to address perspectives related to cultural understanding within the firm. “We’ve also fostered relationships with external groups that share an interest in addressing issues of diversity in the workplace,” as Suzanne added.

    Her team has run resume clinics with groups such as NSBE (National Society of Black Engineers) and on campuses like McMaster and the University of Toronto -- where they've provided guidance to students on preparing their resumes to effectively attract potential recruiters.

    Believing in your talents and possibilities

    Suzanne explained that her own path to Deloitte was quite convoluted. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in Biomedical Mechanical Engineering from the University of Ottawa, she worked for various companies within the mechanical as well as biomedical fields. “As much as I enjoyed solving engineering problems, the day-to-day challenges and the pace was a little too slow for me,” as she shared.

    She knew some people who worked in technology consulting and she liked how they would feel challenged by often switching projects. So she decided to try it out.

    When Suzanne eventually got her job offer at Deloitte as a technology consultant, she was both excited and apprehensive. Recalling how she felt, she said:

    “I’m a consultant in technology and when you think tech, you think coding. Let me tell you something: I do not code! So once I started, every day that went by I would ask myself how I got the job – but I never let that put me down.”

    Her background in engineering had prepared her to take an analytical approach in problem solving. “So when faced with new challenges it’s easier to tackle them; it also made it easy to model every problem I faced,” she said. Suzanne could also use her previous work experience which provided her with valuable industry contacts. Access to established contacts is a very useful asset in consulting.

    “I think at the end of the day, it’s about growing your personal skills no matter what environment you are placed in,” as she expressed.

    A few words of advice

    One of Suzanne's favourite quotes is: “He who asks a question remains a fool for five minutes; he who does not ask remains a fool forever.” So her advice is to not be afraid to ask questions and believe in yourself. Once she started her job at Deloitte, Suzanne made sure to ask questions in order to learn and grow.

    “At the beginning, I would sometimes sit in meetings where all I heard were acronyms flying across the room; but I never shied away from asking the right questions, so that I could keep up with the discussion the next time around. I would take notes, and catch-up by doing research or asking peers about things I didn’t understand. I will be honest, it doesn’t always feel good or comfortable but here we are two years later and I can see the tremendous growth. I was put in a challenging situation and if you embrace being challenged you will grow; and growing will only help you improve your skills and abilities.” 

     When it comes to her experience as a black female in corporate Canada, Suzanne said she's had an overall positive experience. She does get recurring questions around her very different hairstyles and curiosity about her country of origin, Burkina Faso; but hasn't felt unwelcome or that her abilities were in question. She credits her experience as a gender minority in a boys club when studying engineering for preparing her to deliver as expected independently of her surroundings.

    Why should Black professionals consider a career at Deloitte?

    “I have found Deloitte to be a very challenging and diverse workplace. I have felt challenged professionally and have acquired a skillset that I would’ve probably gained a lot later in my career otherwise,” said Suzanne.

    There are also different kinds of communities within Deloitte (such as CBPN) which can help you network with people you find similarities with. There are multiple entry paths for careers at Deloitte:

     • For graduate hires: There are 2 main hiring seasons, one in September and one in January (the one in September being a lot larger). There are also lots of recruiting events that happen in different schools (such as Hack the North for instance) as well as information sessions. Do network with the Deloitte staff onsite and ask questions to have a better understanding of what life at Deloitte would be like.

    For experienced hires: There are always job postings on the Deloitte.ca job portal. It’s the first step in identifying opportunities that may be right for you. If you know someone working at Deloitte, you could also ask them to refer you prior to applying on the Deloitte job portal.

     

  • "In my quest to find love I have failed many times.... Yet recently I came to the realization that in order to find true and healthy love I must first be in love with myself!" With these words, award-winning playwright, actor and comedian Trey Anthony started a blog post for the Huffington Post, entitled 'If I was a Black Girl in Love with Myself,' which struck a chord with many back in 2013.

    “That pretty much went viral,” as she recently told AfroToronto. "A lot of black women were asking me about that piece." Along the way, Anthony had an idea to create a book in the form of a planner with daily affirmations. So she decided create this journal under the overall theme of black girl in love.

    Trey Anthony“I'm very big in affirming. There's what I call ‘bad gyal quotes.’ They're called bad gyal quotes because I also wanted to have that influence of me as a Jamaican Caribbean,” as she explained.

    So by releasing her first book, A Black Girl In Love (with Herself), which Anthony describes as an empowerment journal designed for black women, she encourages women to forgo expensive shoes for therapy – “soul work and not sole work” – and aim to be “as smart as Michelle, as bad ass as Rihanna, as creative as Shonda, as loving as Oprah, as wise as Maya.

    With “bad gyal” quotes from inspiring Black women and body-affirming illustrations of sistahs of various hues and abilities, the journal provides space to schedule business meetings and hair appointments, as well as record exercise and career goals. It is aimed at go-getters who may thrive on to-do lists, but still grapple with issues around self-esteem and self-care.

    The importance of setting goals

    As her success with 'da Kink in My Hair and many other projects since have demonstrated, Trey has always been big about writing down goals and carefully executing. At the beginning of each year, she has always been diligent about writing down her objectives for the year and making sure all commitments and benchmarks are written down. It brings some level of accountability and clarity. She recalls feeling really frustrated last year when she went out shopping for a planner.

    "I always run out and buy planners for myself, my friends and partner. But the same frustration overtakes me every single year. There's nothing out there that I could find which really spoke to me as a black woman. I didn't see myself represented in any of the pages, the language, the illustrations, or anything. It all just felt very generic," as Anthony shared.

    What she would typically do when she wasn't particularly inspired by a planner is to customize it by writing in inspirational quotes, cut out and add pictures and basically amend it in a way that made sense to her.

    She did that until last year when she finally decided to boycott all planners and make her own.

    “I was talking to my partner about it and I was just expressing the level of frustration. I was like: 'You know I wish there was a planner that had a space that looked like me or had women who looked like me or inspired me when I opened it.' She said to me why don't you just make your own. You're basically making your own every year anyway.”

    That's how the Black Girl in Love (with Herself) journal came into being. Anthony admits to being a bit reticent at first to the idea because it would mean entering into a whole new sort of industry for her. But then she realized that the concept matched perfectly with the 'If I was a Black Girl in Love with Myself,' blog post which was such a success on the Huffington Post.

    "So I decided that if I'm going to do a planner, I would create it under this whole black girl in love theme. I would make the actual article from Huffington Post be the central piece of the book. Then inside would be a planner and journal," as she thought.

    Bad gyal wisdom

    Anthony dedicated a part of the book to quotes that have inspired her from women like Laverne Cox, Oprah Winfrey, Serena Williams, and everyday business women in Toronto like Rachel-Lea Rickards and d'bi Young. In another space, she created a section called the black girl dreaming space where journal users can write down all their dreams and aspirations.

    In a certain sense, this project is also a way for Trey to give back. Many people have asked her what is the secret to her success. “One of the things that I've always said is that I've always been really good at asking questions,” she said. Sometimes asking for what you want takes audacity. It's something that has worked for Anthony her entire career. Sending that email, asking someone, or reaching out to someone who may seem unreachable. The journal challenges women on a monthly basis to set a goal to ask; and to commit themselves to a goal of accomplishing an objective through networking.

    “It really is just like an accountability lifestyle journal. Then of course, one of the beauties of it is that it features illustrations of just beautiful black women of all sizes, all shapes, all shades, all hair textures, all abilities,” added Anthony.

    In a nutshell, the planner focuses on the whole power behind writing down goals, achieving success, holding yourself accountable, mapping out your time, setting measurable goals, setting boundaries, and making time to assess the effectiveness of your journey on a monthly, weekly and daily basis.

    An official book launch is planned in Toronto on February 3rd, 2018. But the book is currently available online at Black Girl in Love.

     

  • At this year's Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), three African films are featured in the Contemporary World Cinema category -- spotlighting forty-eight of the best new films world wide. Those films are: The Royal Hibiscus Hotel (Nigeria, Directed by Ishaya Bako), Félicité (Senegal, Directed by Alain Gomis) and The Number (South Africa, Directed by Khalo Matabane). Black documentaries to see at TIFF are also Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart (USA, Directed by Tracy Heather Strain) and Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (USA, Directed by Sam Pollard).

    Contemporary World Cinema

    The Royal Hibiscus Hotel

    A refreshing Nollywood romantic comedy, The Royal Hibiscus Hotel (directed by Ishaya Bako) tells the story of a disillusioned young aspiring chef in London, England (Ope, played by Zainab Balogun) who chooses to move back to her hometown of Lagos to bring a fine cuisine flair to her family-owned hotel.

    Having been met with frustrating hurdles trying to introduce a more sophisticate Afro-fusion culinary style at her employer's establishment in London, and the dim prospects of one day open her own restaurant, Ope believes that no such hinderances to her creative juices' flow will be present under he own roof. Little did she know, however, that her parents (played by Nollywood icons Jide Kosoko and Rachel Oniga) already had their own plans to sell the small family hotel.

    Mixing up the cards even further, the potential buyer is a rich and handsome young man (Deji, played by former Mr. Nigeria himself Kenneth Okolie) with whom sparks soon start to fly.

    The story humourously delves into common pitfalls of the meandering road to love and the challenges to keep communication lines open. Positive and authentic tales of Black love on the big screen are too rare. Having such a large platform as TIFF is an important step to spread this new narrative.

    Dates: Friday — Sept. 8, Saturday — Sept. 9, Monday — Sept. 11, Thursday — Sept. 14, Sunday — Sept. 17. Buy tickets.

    Produced by EbonyLife Films, the TIFF screening is the film's World Premiere. The Royal Hibiscus Hotel is scheduled for release in February 2018.

    Félicité

    Félicité is a powerful cinematic ode to the strength and resilience of African women in the face of adversity. Franco-Senegalese director Alain Gomis said he made this film to tell the story of the many courageous Black women he grew up around. Women who never buckled under any situation.  

    Another personal element which made its way into his film comes from accident which led to his young cousins leg having to be amputated -- after it was left untreated. The courageous behaviour of the young boy's mother was an inspiration to him.

    The film Félicité precisely follows its namesake protagonist, a club singer in Kinshasa (played by Congolese singer-turned-actress Véronique Tshanda Beya Mputu), as she is faced with the sudden financial burden of caring for her 14-year-old son, Samo (played by Gaetan Claudia), who is hospitalized following a grave accident.

    Her modest wages singing in a bar aren't enough to cover her day-to-day living -- much less to pay for her son's expensive hospitalization. So she resorts to approaching anyone who would listen -- or not -- across the city in search of assistance. Even her son's father declines to help and even chastises her by saying: "You're always parading all proud with your chest pumped out. Look at you now! What are you going to do now?"

    Director Alain Gomis revealed that he got the spark to initiate the film project after watching a music video by Congolese group Kasai Allstars. He was struck by the female lead vocalist ‘Muambuyi’ Ntumba Ngalula Tshibangu. Her voice killed him softly with her infectious personality. She inspired him to represent the daily struggles of strong African women in his film. He however felt that Muambuyi was too old to play the role of Félicité. Véronique Tshanda Beya Mputu, whom he had originally envisioned for a smaller role, soon naturally grew on him for the main role. 

    Filming in the Democratic Republic of Congo's bustling 12-million-population-strong metropolis of Kinshasa, a foreign setting for Gomis, was a conscious decision. The city fascinates him for it massive human activity, grit, entrepreneurial spirit, contradictions and all-around hustling, do-or-die attitude.

    Dates: (Opening was Thursday — Sept. 7), Thursday — Sept. 14, Friday — Sept. 15, Saturday — Sept. 16. Buy tickets.

    The TIFF screening is the film’s North American Premiere. Félécité previously won the Jury Grand Prix award at the 67th Berlin International Film Festival.

    The Number

    I first interviewed South African filmmaker Khalo Matabane for AfroToronto way back in 2006. Even back then the common thread of his documentaries and films was a brutally frank portrayal of South African society. He likewise pulls no punches in his TIFF 2017 film entry, The Number.

    Matabane's new feature film, based on Jonny Stienberg’s book with the same title, examines the underbelly of the violent gang culture inside South Africa's prison system. The Numbers is the deadliest prison gang.

    The story is based on the life of actual gang defector Magadien Wentzel (played by Mothusi Magano). He's part of the 28s -- the warrior faction of The Numbers. We find him at the heights of his power. But he's faced with an existential crisis when a young recruit to the gang is brutally killed. He begins to question his allegiance to the destructive and blood-thirsty culture, and family, which he's been part and parcel of for years.

    He struggles with the prospect of turning on his 28s to save himself and, in the process, obtain an early release. Matabane pierces into his inner demons as he searches for redemption.

    Dates: (Opening was Thursday — Sept. 7), Friday — Sept. 8, Wednesday — Sept. 13, Thursday — Sept. 14. Buy tickets.

    The TIFF screening is the film's World Premiere.

     

    Documentaries

    Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart

    Directed by Tracy Heather Strain, Sighted Eyes/Feeling Heart is a documentary about the life of Black playwright Lorraine Hansberry (1930-1965) — who penned the acclaimed play A Raisin in the Sun. The play explores the struggles of an ordinary black family on Chicago's South Side. Toronto theatregoers were treated several years ago to a Soulpepper Theatre production of A Raisin in the Sun, directed Weyni Mengesha.

    A U.S. Civil Rights-era writer, communist, feminist, lesbian, and outspoken trailblazer, Lorraine Hansberry was a friend of James Baldwin and is credited for inspiring Nina Simone. She used both the stage and her every day life to shine a light on societal injustices.

    Drawing on rarely seen archives and interviews with Hansberry’s contemporaries such as Ruby Dee, Sidney Poitier, Harry Belafonte, Louis Gossett Jr., and her sister Mamie Hansberry, Strain provides an in-depth look at life, her work and her impact.

    The film title comes from Hansberry's view that "one can not live with sighted eyes and feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries which afflict this world."

    Dates: (Opening was Thursday — Sept. 7), Friday — Sept. 8, Saturday — Sept. 9. Wednesday — Sept. 13, Sunday — Sept. 17. Buy tickets.

    The TIFF screening is the film's World Premiere.

    Sammy Davis Jr.: I’ve Gotta Be Me

    As a long-time collaborator of Spike Lee, filmmaker Sam Pollard has a long history of covering the Black experience on film. His editing work can be seen in films like Mo' Better Blues (90), Clockers (95), 4 Little Girls (97), and Bamboozled (00). His directing credits include Slavery by Another Name (12), Two Trains Runnin' (16), and his latest film making its World Premiere at TIFF 2017,  Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (17).

    Using eye-opening interviews with Jerry Lewis, Whoopi Goldberg, Billy Crystal, and others who knew Davis well, Pollard's documentary offers valuable insights into the life of this complex personality, dancer, signer, all-round performer, and member of the legendary Rat Pack.

    Sammy Davis Jr.'s long-spanning career traversed some turbulent times with respect to race relations in the United-States. He navigated treacherous cultural identity waters as an African-American man, identifying with Judaism, all-the-while straddling the segregated world of Las Vegas, prejudice and the Civil Rights movement.

    Pollard and the film's producers wanted to go deeper and show some little-know aspects of his life and career. For instance, many people aren’t aware that Sammy Davis Jr. started his career in blackface, that he was bold enough to imitate white celebrities in his nightclub act at the height of the Jim Crow era, or that he was the first African-American to be invited by the President to spend a night in the Lincoln Bedroom at the White House.

    Dates: Sunday — Sept. 10, Monday — Sept. 11, Wednesday — Sept. 13, Friday — Sept. 15. Buy tickets.

    The TIFF screening is the film's World Premiere.

     

  • "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."

  • An interview with Natasha Powell, artistic director of Holla Jazz

    As we get ready to observe International Jazz Day on April 30, Natasha Powell, the Toronto-based artistic director of the jazz dance company Holla Jazz, is presenting FLOOR'D -- a full-length soulful dance and musically-infused exploration of the rich dance tradition of vernacular jazz. Making its world premiere, FLOOR'D will hit the stage at the Winchester Street Theatre from April 25-28, 2018.

    The daughter of Caribbean immigrants (a Jamaican father and Grenadian mother), Toronto native Natasha Powell grew up in a home where dance and music were omnipresent. A dancer since the age of 9, the pursuit of her passion led her to train professionally in Toronto, Vancouver, Los Angeles and New York.

    She was inspired to start Holla Jazz in 2016 from a formative experience in New York during the summer of 2013. She had received a grant to study the history and lineage of African-American social dance -- particularly looking at its connection to hip hop.

    "I watched a documentary by one of my mentors featuring these old black and white films of African-Americans doing the Charleston; and then in the next clip he would have more modern dancers from the early 2000’s doing hip hop. I thought to myself, there’s all this connection there; and I was inspired by that," as she spelled out.

    Photo by David Hou. Raoul Wilke and Natasha Powell.

    So began her journey which led the the creation of Holla Jazz dance company. "I decided that I wanted to start creating my own work and share my own voice. That’s when I started getting into choreography," she said. Her inspiration was the Post-Emancipation African-American dance tradition.

    FLOOR'D is essentially a tribute to the continuous and unbroken, but often forgotten, link between the creative effervescence of those days from the jook halls frequented by the black lower and working classes, through its Eurocentric appropriation, to today's black dance culture.

    The jook traces it roots from West-African traditions. Jook joints in the 1920's and 30's were vibrant incubators in the black community for the development of many well-known styles of dance in black dance culture such as the Charleston, the twist and the shimmy.

    "It’s really important for us to understand that jazz dancing is a black social dance because you don’t see a lot of black people doing jazz social dancing anymore. So it’s important to share that history and lineage because, oftentimes, we’re not able to acknowledge or put our names to something because it becomes so popularized. It becomes associated with the general public. But actually, it was created by these communities during really hard times. So it’s really important to acknowledge that struggle," as she eloquently explained.

    The seven dancers in FLOOR'D, seamlessly accompanied by musicians playing brass, drums and piano, under the direction of Gerald Heslop, aim to invoke the spirit and energy of the jook joint pioneers.

    It was important for Natasha to find a way to honour that tradition. "That tradition still continues --whether it’s at home, in our backyard, or at parties. There’s always this sharing of dance that’s kind of consistent," she said.

    But how do you go about passing on this legacy to the younger Afro-Caribbean generation in Toronto who are maybe more interested in hip hop or soca?

    "It’s definitely important to understand the cultural history. Because in order to move forward you have to know where you came from, right? Oftentimes younger generations don’t always have access; or sometime they’re unaware of a lot of things that came before us," she argued.

    "I think it’s also how you present it to them. That is important. What bodies are actually doing the dance. It's when they see other people that they can relate to. That was also my challenge. At first I didn’t see people that I could relate to doing the dance. It made an impact once I saw people that I could relate to embodying this type of dance."

    "Presentation and representation are key components in trying to get more people interested."

    "Making it accessible and knowing that this dance is for everybody. Making sure that they can actually afford to participate in the dance is part of it as well. Because sometimes the black community maybe does have challenges with access to being able to participate in whatever types of events that are available to them."

     

    LISTING INFORMATION    

    Holla Jazz presents: FLOOR’D
    Dates: April 25—28 at 8pm
    Ticket Prices: $30 Adults / $25 Artists, Students & Seniors
    Venue: Winchester Street Theatre - 80 Winchester St., Toronto
    Box Office: hollajazz.com

  • 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

  • Coming into its final weekend at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace, Lukumi: A Dub Opera, by African-Jamaican dubpoet, playwright-performer and arts-educator d'bi.young anitafrika, explores an Afrofuturist world set in a post­-apocalyptic Toronto in 2167 --- 150 years after World War III. The third installment in d'bi.young's The Orisha Trilogy, Lukumi, reveals a dystopian future ravaged by the environmental disaster caused by the Period of Explosions (PoE) a century earlier.

    As d'bi explained, Afrofuturism is an old genre that’s currently going through an interesting reemergence in the black community; so she was eager to explore the concept. “I love black people, I love black art. It’s all very fascinating to me,” she said.

    "I'm a very hopeful person. And so the future setting allows us to have hope now. The future setting also allows for lots of alternative realities; even though everything I'm talking about is really now," as she further elaborated.

    At its core, Lukumi is a play about environmental consciousness. “I have poetry that, here and there, talks about the environment. But I've never written an environmental play. So far, my focus has been on people, women and black men. So I feel tackling this important issue is part of my own growth, as not only an artist, but as a human being,” as she explained. 

    “Lukumi is an exploration of the environment. Lukumi is an environmental play. It looks at deforestation through the vehicle of poetry, music, song and dance. It's called a Dub Opera because the original meaning of Opera is to tell a play through music.”

    In d'bi's mind, the culture, spirit and history of black people are transmitted through black bodies and the land. "I am interested in exploring the black body as it's diasporized. But along with the body comes all that the body retains. Which is the spiritualities, the cultural knowings, and the ancient knowledge. The body retains so much for black people to have survived. We would have in fact retained quite a lot. So, Lukumi is a continued exploration of this concept. That's a part of it."

    Indeed, the name of the main character, Lukumi, played by d'bi.young, is the name of an Afro-Cuban ethnic group of Yoruba ancestry who practices the African spiritual tradition of La Regla Lucimí (Santeria). Because our bodies carry the tradition, it was a conscious choice of her's to name this central character after an entire Yoruba tradition. "I want people to think about that," she said.

     

    Lukumi, the full-length Dub Opera is showing at the Tarragon Theatre Extraspace until October 14, 2017

    Tues - Sat at 8pm Wed at 1:30pm | Sat at 2:30pm | Ticket Price General $32.00 + Arts Workers/ Students $27 | PWYC Wed matinees Tarragon Theatre Extra Space | 30 Bridgman Ave. | Advance Tickets bit.do/lukumi

     

  • The Miss Universe Canada 2017 pageant will be held this coming Saturday, October 7, 2017, at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre's John Bassett Theatre. One of the finalists this year is Toronto-based Katherine Highgate. She also previously advanced to the Miss Universe Canada national finals back in 2013 after winning the GTA regional pageant.

    A native of Dresden, Ontario, Katherine moved to Toronto seven years ago to attend Ryerson University's Radio and Television Arts program and has stayed here ever since, after obtaining her bachelor's degree. “Usually, in my high school, I was one of three black girls there,” she said. “So coming to Toronto was a completely different experience. There is so much culture. You kind of get to network with people from different backgrounds and talk to people who can relate to your experiences — which is really great.” Although she also feels that, unlike in a small town, it’s not always so easy to stand out and break into networks.

    On building confidence

    Interestingly, getting into her first pageant at the age of 13 was a great way to help Katherine break out of her shell. “As a kid, I was painfully shy. I went from being the kid in class who mumbled and was too nervous to put her hand up to stepping onto a pageant stage and, all of a sudden, witnessing this sort of diva personality coming out.”

    She credits her early pageant experience across the U.S and Canada with giving her more confidence and gaining the ability to feel much more comfortable about approaching new people. “So for me it’s been a really good opportunity. I think of it almost as a finishing school because you learn how to talk to people, how to present yourself well, and develop a stage presence,” she added.

    While Katherine loves being in front of the camera, she’s also interested in being a creator behind the scenes. She enjoys writing, editing, videography and blogging.

    On being a role model

    Being on the pageant circuit for many years and making many connections has afforded her with valuable opportunities to explore various career avenues. Just as she was mentored before, now as one of the older girls, she enjoys taking younger girls under her wing.

    “Even though everybody's competing, it's a great experience because you have all these women that are really goal-oriented, driven and motivated. So you do network with them a lot and get to work with them outside of the competition on other projects,” she said.

    Another aspect where Katherine is able to make a difference is through her impact as a woman of colour. “That's one of the things that I talk about all the time. When I was a kid, finding a black Barbie doll for example was a struggle. I feel like being able to watch a competition like Miss Universe and see different women of all backgrounds, with different features and different hair and body types being celebrated, I think that's something super positive,” as she recounts.

    Pioneering black pageant contestants

    “For myself, trying to be a role model, I want to give kids the perspective that: 'Hey, there's somebody that looks like me that's on this stage. So I can do that too, right?' Because every winner doesn't have to have blond hair or brown hair, curly hair or straight hair. I think that's one of the really special things about this competition.”

    “There's so many black women that have done great stuff in Canadian pageantry. Adwoa Yamoah was the first runner up in 2012 and represented Canada at Miss Universe. She did a wonderful job. We had a lot of girls crack into the top five. I feel like the more we encourage people in our community to seek out these opportunities and to go for it, eventually we're going to see more diversity in the way that we're represented, too.”

    Katherine would love to represent Canada on the international stage. It's a long-held dream of hers. "It would be an incredible privilege. I'm fiercely proud to be Canadian. I think it would also just be a huge honour," she said.

  • "I'm really passionate about telling Canadian stories, and telling them well and authentically," said Amanda Parris during our phone conversation about her play "Other Side of the Game," closing this weekend at Native Earth Theatre's Aki Studio in Regent Park. As demonstrated from the often audible reactions from the audience, the play certainly seems to have struck a chord and served that purpose. "It's been very moving for some people," she added.

    The inspiration for "Other Side of the Game" came out of Amanda's multiple experiences visiting a friend who was, at the time, incarcerated at the Don Jail.

    She was struck by the strange feeling of finding herself in an alternate universe. The prison system was, aesthetically and energetically, a cold and uninviting environment which imposed all these rules — not just for the inmates but for those visiting them as well. Most of the visitors she saw were women. They had to conform to very odd visiting ours — like Monday from 1-4 pm.

    Strumming their pain with these scenes

    Amanda Parris

    “So, I began wondering what these visitors, mostly women, around me had to do with their days in order to get there. In order to be there did they have to take time off work? Did they have to arrange childcare?” she asked herself.

    Amanda embarked on a journey to interview many of these "ride-or-die" women. However, she didn’t feel that the jail’s tense environment was the right and natural place to casually approach these women and probe them about their experiences. Instead, she anonymously interviewed people she knew who had supported loved ones that were incarcerated about their experiences and set about telling their lives with her words.

    Thirteen interviews later, the result was a genuinely told story which has kept all the flavours, accents and vernacular of the local neighbourhoods they came from. "There's a lot of things that are mentioned in the play that people had not heard on stage before. Particular names and locations that are kind of dropped into the conversation; reference points, things like that," said Parris.

    "I've often received some really beautiful messages from people who feel very emotional after seeing the play. I think part of that emotion definitely comes from the story. It's because the story is a reflection that they don't get to see very often," she added. 

    Flipping the script: Embarrassed by the crowd

    This first-time partnership between Cahoots and Obsidian also marks the professional playwriting debut for Amanda Parris. She has been best known as a writer, actor, educator and host of  Exhibitionists on CBC Television, Marvin’s Room on CBC Radio, and her weekly column for CBC Arts. When I asked her about how she managed the transition from showcasing the work of other artists to putting out her own voice out there, she said:

    "It's a really lovely and wonderful thing I get to do in terms of having a platform to share other people's art. But when it's your own art you suddenly are reminded of how much courage it takes to put out these things that have existed inside of you. These ideas and possibilities are being manifested. And everybody gets to witness it, consume it, critique it and judge it. It's very scary," as she shared. Even after sitting in the audience multiple times it wasn't getting easier. "I was sweating and I had butterflies like it was opening night all over again."

    Ryan Rosery, Virgilia Griffith, Shakura Dickson, Peter Bailey. photo by Dahlia Katz

    Busting “the myth of the solitary creative genius,” Amanda makes it clear that she has been nurtured by a community of talented creators -- from her director, dramaturge, choreographer, actors and more. “I feel so lucky to have Nigel Shawn Williams as my director. I feel like I won the lottery with that. The vision he manifested for the play is beyond what I imagined," she said. Selected as part of the 2014-2015 Hot House playwright unit at Cahoots Theatre, Amanda also benefited from her years of working closely with her dramaturge Marjorie Chan.

    “The script was a work in progress right up until opening night,” as Amanda revealed. “I think the team has been absolutely incredible; and when you're lucky enough to work with a group of geniuses it makes your job a lot easier,” she said.

    There are still three chances to go see the play and listen for a while: Friday, November 3 at 8:00 PM, Saturday, November 4 at 8:00 PM and Sunday, November 5 at 2:00 PM.

     

    Aki Studio, Daniels Spectrum, 585 Dundas Street East
    Until November 5, 2017

    Tickets $37 • Arts Worker & Students $25 includes all taxes and ticket fees
    To purchase tickets please visit: nativeearth.ca/otherside or call 416.531.1402

    For more information please visit
    cahoots.ca | obsidiantheatre.com
    #osotgTO

     

  • I recently caught up with Nigerian actress Zainab Balogun to chat about her recent experience at TIFF promoting her film The Royal Hibiscus Hotel. In between her busy travel schedule in Morocco, she graciously shared her thoughts with AfroToronto.com

    AfroToronto: How was your TIFF experience? Was it your first time in the city?

    Zainab Balogun: TIFF this year was absolutely great! Aside from promoting our selection, "The Royal Hibiscus Hotel" I got a chance to really take part in the festival highlights which I didn’t get to last year. I also got to see a little bit more of just how charming Toronto is.

    AfroToronto: How did you get involved with The Royal Hibiscus Hotel project? What appealed to you about the story?

    Zainab Balogun: I had worked with the Executive Producer of the movie last year in the TIFF 2016 selection; 'The Wedding Party'. After having a great experience with them, the first-time round, I was asked to audition for their new movie.

    AfroToronto: Do you think Nollywood can help in growing African cinema across the continent? Is there already a strong collaborative framework across the continent and the diaspora?

    Zainab Balogun: As the leading African film industry, I believe Nollhywood is well on its way to proving to global cinemas that our productions can be exported and well received. The framework for collaborations has already started to develop. With collaborations on distribution and productions with the likes of Netflix as well as recognition from TIFF, this can only further support our position.

    AfroToronto: How would you rate the global awareness about Nollywood and African cinema as a whole?

    Zainab Balogun: I think the world has already caught the bug for African cinema! This comes at a faster rate than what most of us expected but the more eyeballs we get, the more the industry grows.

    AfroToronto: What advice would you give to creatives of African descent looking to enter the movie industry?

    Zainab Balogun: Stay true to your stories and be authentic. The world is on the lookout for something brand new and Africa's serving!

     

  • 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

  • Traditionally, the Walrus has focused on Canada and its place in the world, however, recently they’ve also widened their vision to include refreshing new conversations showcasing Africa’s future leaders. The series is called Africa’s Next Generation, and was hosted in Toronto and Ottawa.

    According to David Leonard, Director of Events at the Walrus Foundation, “The Mandate of the Walrus is conversations, so everything we do is to try to start conversations, for us its Canada and its place in the world , and we look at Africa right now, look at the conversations on Entrepreneurship, around Women & Girls, around conflicts, around resilience; These conversations define Africa but they also reflect back to Canada.”

    Africa and Canada’s best and brightest came out to offer thoughtful dialogue on how to shape the Continent’s future.

    The Toronto leg of the series featured a gamut of intellectuals among them scholars, entrepreneurs, journalists and lawyers.

    (1) Ikram Abdinur - Edmonton-based filmmaker and human rights activist, (2) Bior Ajak - Vice-president of the McGill African Students’ Society, (3) Alfred Baafi Acheampong - Co-founder of the Land Reclamation and Environmental Conservation Society, (4) Lamia Naji - Learning and strategy at the MasterCard Foundation (5) Nana aba Duncan - Host of Fresh Air on CBC Radio One, (6) Janet Longmore - CEO of Digital Opportunity Trust and (7) Dania Suleman - Quebec labour lawyer and social-justice advocate.

    The eight visionary Africans featured were; Ikram Abdinur, co-founder of the Global Indigenous Youth Coalition, Bior Ajak, MasterCard Foundation Scholar, McGill University, Alfred Baafi Acheampong, MasterCard Foundation Scholar, UBC, Nana aba Duncan, host of Fresh Air on CBC Radio One and creator of Media Girlfriends, Janet Longmore, founder and CEO of Digital Opportunity Trust, Lamia Naji, associate manager, The MasterCard Foundation and Dania Suleman, lawyer and community activist.

    Each spoke on issues around education access & equality, youth, gender equality, and social justice.

    Walrus rep David Leonard, also stated that “in a globalized world we can look at this incredibly rising population and see Africa on the cusp of being a major world power.”

    Africa’s future is bright, Canada and the Walrus are doing their part to illuminate the world.

    For more information on future Talks visit https://thewalrus.ca

     

  • 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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