A Fresh Voice Emerges from the Diaspora: An interview with the Stori Ya Collective

01 Nov 2005

Stori Ya: Written By Joan M. Kivanda, Directed by ahdri zhina mandiela, Performed by Rhoma Spencer

Toronto’s diverse cultural landscape is home to many artistic voices.  One such voice is Joan M. Kivanda, a young, playwright from Tanzania, whose bold, dramatic, script Stori Ya, was recently selected for the prestigious Hatch: emerging performance projects series opening at Harbourfront Centre.  Initially presented at the rock.paper.sistahz IV festival and the Summerworks 2005 festival, this one handler tells the story of Maria Msondo’s journey from Tanzania to Canada, and her struggle to save her home from repossession.

Joan’s own story began when fate connected her with Dora Award-winning artist and founder of Theatre Archipelago, Rhoma Spencer, on a TTC bus ride. Spencer became a mentor to the young playwright and when she received the first draft of Stori Ya, was immediately impressed.

“By the time I read the first two pages I was hooked.  I found myself reading the entire script and commenting on it right away…I was taken aback that such a young girl was writing such a mature script,” says Spencer from her cell phone, enroute to Toronto’s east end with marketing materials for an upcoming project.

Although an accomplished director, Spencer connected to the part more as an actor, drawn to the intensity of the character.  “I read it on condition both as an actor and as a director.  But I felt more akin to it as an actor.  I wanted to do this part more than direct it. I like to play roles of women who are on the edge psychologically,” says Spencer.

For Spencer, this has been a long road from her initial reading of the script to its presentation on stage with full production value. “In my 25 years or so as an actor, this is the first time I’ve had such a personal journey with a script. I like that. It’s very challenging right now.  It’s the hardest piece of work I’ve done… Sometimes I resent that such a young girl has challenged me like that,” laughs Spencer.

The role of directing the play in Harbourfront Centre’s Studio Theatre fell to ahdri zhina mandiela, artistic director of b current, who has also directed Obsidian Theatre’s Two Can Play and Gamut Productions’ The Burglary, earlier this year. Drawn to the script and the playwright, mandiela describes Joan as “an emerging playwright with a strong and very individual voice”.

After directing Stori Ya in Theatre Passe Muraille’s intimate backspace, the challenge for mandiela at Studio Theatre is to take “a solo performance piece which is written in an intimate style and an intimate interaction and engagement between performer and audience” and bring that to a larger stage.  “It’s a whole different kind of vision and molding of playing style,” says mandiela over the phone.

When asked about the recent number of festivals this year and whether that bodes well for theatre, mandiela expressed some concern.  “There seems to be a lot going on but there isn’t really,” says mandiela.  “There are a few voices that are really getting exposed.  When you are presenting artists in a festival, that’s a particular forum, that’s not necessarily developing the work and or the artist,” adds mandiela.

Having been in the industry for many years mandiela is concerned with the long-term development of an artist’s career and the legacy they leave behind. “What we need are long-term incubation processes that help them to grow as artists and help the work to grow,” says mandiela.  She suggests that “we need to have more than premiere productions of the work, allowing it to have several afterlives, like touring and productions in all kinds of theatre seasons, growing into works like in Stratford...why not?”

She cites the Tarragon Theatre, “one of the most respected theatres around”, as an example of a playwright unit that supports longer residencies, allowing playwrights to develop their work.  However, not many, culturally diverse artists have had an opportunity to work in those units.  “You might see them in a specific kind of playwright unit that convenes for a specific purpose but not in the general ongoing activities,” says mandiela. It is clear much more resources are needed to level the playing field.

As part of the r’Aiz’n the sun ensemble, Joan Kivanda is thankful she has support and mentorship from many talented individuals at this stage of her career. Despite the long road ahead, she is excited about her progress so far. Sitting cross-legged on the couch in Afrotoronto.com’s cozy office, she reminisces about the writing and editing process. “I spent a lot of time on this new draft. When you start writing it’s easy, you just write whatever, but when it comes to rewriting you have to think about things,” laughs Kivanda, eager to see the final production.

Given the talent of this collaborative team, Stori Ya, Maria Msondo’s compelling journey across continents, will certainly be worth a look.

Stori Ya runs from, November 8th - 13th in the Studio Theatre at Harbourfront Centre.  For tickets contact the Box Office at 416-973-4000.