Blood.claat - Herstory's bloodline: A talk with d.bi Young & Weyni Mengesha

13 Nov 2005

"During ‘Da Kink, we were reminded by older women in the community that the wheel was not being re-invented ... there was a herstory long pre-dating ‘Da Kink of black woman theatre. Because of the racism and because of the systemic discrimination and alienation in choosing what kind of herstory is preserved and presented, it seemed like we were re-inventing the wheel with ‘Da Kink. But in fact we were just building on a tradition that was already there.”

- D.bi Young

Tomorrow night at Theatre Passe Muraille's Stage3 festival, the backspace will be host to a magical collaboration between two of the most innovative and talented creative minds in the city. d.bi Young and Weyni Mengesha of course received great praise for their respective acting and directing work on 'Da Kink in My Hair -- which also recently had a run in California. But whether you find them on the imposing Mirvish stage, or the much smaller venue of Theatre Passe Muraille's backspace, their passion remains equally undiluted.

As I stepped through the backstage door of Passe Muraille's backspace, I find d.bi Young in the midst of a dancehall-beat-filled rehearsal session for Blood.claat. This play, written and performed by Young, in many ways reflects and honours her and Mengesha's storied journey from 'Da Kink's early and humble beginnings at Passe Muraille, all the way through the bright lights of the Princess of Whales Theatre, and back again for what is approximately their 16th collaboration. As d.bi Young points out: “The play is about a lot of things. But really it’s about the beginning and ending of cycles and honouring the blood tradition that we all come from. Re-honouring the blood."

Sitting down with them at a small black table, I find myself interacting with not only co-workers, but long-time friends who share a common vision about Blood.claat's message about the importance of "connecting." The play is about the beginning and ending of cycles. Quoting Young, it's about "honouring all of our passages." With the concern in mind to ignite a reconnection to what Mengesha calls a sacredness that''s been lost, Blood.claat still refrains from being a piece which seeks to, as d.bi Young puts it, reach "back to some sort of romanticized idea of the past." It’s not that story. Young's main character (out a total of 13!) is a young woman coming of age seeking to come to terms with "the many cycles in her family that are coming out of the legacy of slavery -- which is implicated in the story." She adds: "Like the birth cycle, like having children at a really young age. These are the legacies of slavery. However, the story is not trying to romanticize."

This sense of connectedness is further expressed through what Weyni Mengesha terms her and Young's "secret language." Having worked so much together over the years, I ask them: "Are you at a point where you know everything about each other now?" "That could never be" clarifies d.bi Young. "I trust her eyes with the project. So ultimately for me it’s like the trust is the most important thing. Because I think that if you don’t have the trust, then you go on stage and you are insecure about the choices that you’re making or that you’ve been told to make. So the trust is what bridges that gap. ... And sometimes, she literally has to get on stage and show me. That’s why you’re the director."

An important distinction with this particular play is that both d.bi Young and Weyni Mengesha take on dual roles. For Young, she is both writer and actor and Mengesha is dramaturge/director. Young credits Mengesha for her dramaturgy -- as she "fleshed out" the play (which is currently in its fourth incarnation) from a piece mainly concerned with the experience of immigration to where the play is today. "And it’s the actual dramaturgy process that has gotten it to where it’s at now. It’s really important. We don’t really talk much about dramaturgy a lot ... that’s the process that develops the playwright." The play was edited a lot. But as Weyni Mengesha points out: "There’s editing but there’s also the adding as well. That’s the nice thing. We’re lucky like that because we trust each other."

Our discussion on the primary importance of dramaturgy -- the process of putting a playwright's work through the washing machine, in a manner of speaking, and seeking to render the story-telling more fluid and economical --- leads us to discuss the current stage of affairs on the availability of such resources for the emerging black playwright in particular. Where are the established playwright units and institutions to help flesh out and produce the work of culturally diverse emerging artists who are often relegated to the culturally distinctive festivals of the one-and-off backspaces of major theatres?

In a phone conversation that AfroToronto.com had with well known director ahdri zhina mandiela recently, she spoke of the need to create and maintain a running memory about the achievements of black theatre over the years. Mandiela pointed out how being often relegated to backspaces and one-off festivals, without an afterlife of dedicated production of the works, has resulted in a loss of memory about some of the strides that she and others had achieved in the 1970s.

This is what the message that Blood.claat seeks to address. Mengesha explains: "And that’s part of the problem [with these short-run festivals]. There’s this idea of the phenomenon of the successful black play -- which is just not the case. So it’s really integral for us to keep track of what we are doing so that people understand that it’s been done and that it’s been successful." Tying it all to the concept of Blood.claat, d.bi Young adds: "What happens when you trace back that herstory is that you realize that there is a blood line, and there’s a lineage. .. [we are cut] off from our past and it just seems that we are just living in a vacuum. And nothing’s connected to nothing so we can’t value the experience of what’s come before. As opposed to having this line that is not vertically constructed but this line of cycles where you get to pay homage to that which has gone before. And you also get to build on as the younger people."

Much hope must be gained from the efforts of Theatre Passe Muraille's genuine commitment to providing a forum for the development of those emerging voices. As Theatre Passe Muraille's Associate Artistic Director, Weyni Mengesha has made a huge impact with Stage3 (by selecting the works of Joseph Jomo Pierre, Nicole Stamp, and d.bi Young's Blood.claat). As Mengesha points out, what is important is to have people appointed to such positions who will show genuine commitment in developing those plays.

See Theatre Passe Muraille site or call 416.504.7529 for tickets

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