26 May 2006


“I feel like our sexuality has been shaped so much by the diasporic experience of enslaved African peoples that I feel that if we were to take the time to investigate our sexuality more, that we would see that it’s on a continuum. And that our sexuality has so much to do with our empowerment and our self-esteem. We don’t talk about it at all. .... We don’t want to talk about the way gender is constructed in Black men and in Black women. And the way that this construction often keeps us really inhibited. Not only sexually but inhibited in every way. So that I feel like a part of my own liberation is to deal with sexuality. I can’t talk about classicism and racism, agism and not talk about sexuality and gender. People don’t like talking about sex. … So I feel that a part of my job as a story-teller … is to reflect those stories that are not being talked about. And if they are being talked about, to really push the button and push the pencil. And to be provocative. There’s no shame in being provocative. I like that. I like being provocative.”

- D’bi Young

The concept of community and the role of the artist, journalist, or story-teller in forging a fruitful alliance with it is behind much of D’bi Young’s artistic philosophy. Much as in the African griot tradition, Young believes that you have to “pay your dues” to the community as a story-teller. Part of that comes in the form of spending time to develop and grow with the craft. As she puts it: “There are necessarily stages along the way where you are mentored, where you have to put energy that’s not necessarily reciprocated in a monetary sense. … You have to enter into a relationship with community.” Her book Art on Black. and the years of working on the manuscript and having it reviewed by those who have come before (like ahdri zhina mandiela), was part of this process. But the theatre stage is another important conduit through which D’bi Young seeks to engage her community in tackling some important topics.

As a mid-career artist, Young recognizes that there are certain responsibilities that come along with being an “elder”. Even though she turned just 28 last December, which is obviously still very young, she has nonetheless traveled a many-storied road. I congratulated her on having been accepted as part of a very select group of ten mid-career artists making up the inaugural 2006 edition of the Soulpepper Academy. This is no small feat, as the field was narrowed down from 225 applicants from across Canada, from Victoria to Charlottetown, and from the United States, Australia and the United Kingdom. The two-year program, which starts this coming June, will allow her (and also fellow Toronto theatre practitioner and director of ''Da Kink in my Hair Weyni Mengesha) to continue to grow and develop with the full support of a professional apprenticeship framework. D’bi Young is grateful for the opportunity. “That’s a big deal. Because it means that I can focus wholeheartedly on writing and on creating, on dancing, and on movement and in voice. All the things that I need to develop and grow as a storyteller. So I am taking it seriously.”

Young describes this current growth period in her life as a time to engage in her own process of self-love and self-analysis. “I keep reminding myself because you’re getting older, the expectations are different. As an elder, your expectations are different. ... I can only imagine that that’s not an individual thing. Everybody feels that potential for growth and metamorphosis and sometimes we take the agency to change and sometimes we don’t. But my own growth as a story-teller, even in the last four months, says that we can’t do less than our parents did. We can’t afford to do less than our parents did. … So to come now and to be at Soulpepper, is really unbelievable. … What it means is that now after all the work that my mom’s done, that my grandma’s done, all the people who’ve done the work [I can enjoy this opportunity]. Because your lifetime of work is not just your lifetime of work … it’s a whole bunch of people, blood, sweat and tears people come over on boat and ship and all kind of craziness.”

Through her Soulpepper Academy experience, D’bi Young hopes to develop the last two pieces in the Mudgu Sankofa trilogy. The first play in that trilogy was the much-acclaimed Bloodclaat. The second play in the trilogy, Androgyne, is a piece looking at queerness and homophobia. It delves into how “Black women, and the Black community, give and receive love.”  The third play, called Chronicles in Dub, follows the same central character, Mudgu Sankofa, as she reconciles her identity as a Jamaican and Canadian woman through the romanticizing of the legacy of dub poetry and Jamaica in the ‘70s and ‘80s. As Young elaborates: “The thing about those three pieces is I felt like I wanted to do an autobiographical journey. But adding mythology and taking a lot of poetic license. It looks more like a biomythography than an autobiography. And looking at different aspects of my own developing artistic self and really trying to critique that using the micro of my own personal reality to look at the macro of black community and women in particular. And all the issues that surround us. Blood and menstruation and sexuality, identity, and class. All of this stuff, looking at that. So the three pieces are thematically driven in that way.  Blood, looking at womanism and menstruation. And Androgyne, looking at sexuality. And the third piece looking at cultural legacies and how we document our stories and how we remember and sometimes forget our legacies.”

In addition to the Mudgu Sankofa trilogy, D’bi Young also hopes to develop another piece at Soulpepper Academy which she’s been working on for two years independently from the trilogy. Similarly to Androgyne, this piece in progress is basically a story about a woman and a man who are in love. But the sub-plot involves the defining factor lining this relationship that the man is a queer “down-low brother.”  He is queer, but queer loving women and loving men. And doesn’t know how to deal with that in his relationship. “ I wanted to look at that because there’s been so much talk about down-low brothers and the lack of integrity in it. But this play is looking at the way in which Black men have very little spaces to exist in the mainstream and also deal with their sexuality. So that it is sometimes sympathetic towards that male character” as Young expands.

I needlessly remind D’bi that these issues of sex and queerness aren’t the easiest topics to address within the Black community. I ask her what has been her experience as far as reactions from the Black community with respect to her bold, and even provocative, subject-matters in her work. She responds:

“Black people love me. … they can’t stand me but they love me. The beautiful thing about hard work and many years is that, after a while, people have expectations. … Listen, I know black people. Black people are the most forward thinking people I know and I say that because, in spite of our bigotries, the support for my work is full and complete. Some people are obviously homophobic, and opinionated, and have a lot of class issues and sometimes want to know if I talk Jamaican all the time. Is that a political choice that I make? Really want to know which school I went to. They can’t figure out my class. … That being said, the people who made ‘Da kink a success were black people. The people who made Lord Have Mercy a success were Black people. The people who continue to give me work, are Black people. So I’m committed to us. And I love us. My own journey in relationship to myself and my own interrogation of my own internalized racism. My own internalized hate. Self-hate and hate.”

Young recounts how incredibly honoured she was recently to have been invited to perform at a community wedding. “Those were Caribbean Black people who know where I’m coming from” she says with genuine appreciation. “It’s a complicated affair and I feel that if I did less than to present the issues that I’m presenting, that I would be failing the Black community, and failing myself.”

From June 9 th to 11 th 2006, D’bi Young will be premiering a workshop production of Androgyne at the queer-focused Buddies in Bad Times Theatre. “My work doesn’t necessarily have a herstory of being associated with queer spaces but it’s a conscious decision that I’m making because I feel like that’s a part of the work. It’s to give people examples” Young says. The production is directed by b.current’s ahdri zhina mandiela, dramaturged by Moynan King, and performed by Ordena Stephens-Thompson (‘Da Kink in my Hair, Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God) with D’bi Young in a supporting role.

D’bi Young is enthusiastic about the production: “People will come out and see Androgyne even if it’s only to take in the spectacle and to live vicariously through that because so many of us are closeted. Not only in terms of sexuality but just inhibited. And I feel that people enjoyed ‘Da Kink because it allowed us to sit and to look at even a queer monologue, a monologue on incest and know that as survivors we can see an example of ourselves. I feel like the energy and the support to create this kind of work is coming from Black communities.”

Don’t miss the show.

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