Celebrating Black Female Voices

24 Feb 2006

AfroToronto chats with ahdri zhina mandiela, founder of rock.paper.sistahz

Rock.paper.sistahz is back for its fifth season. Showcasing the work of black women artists, the festival has traditionally focused on performance work staged at Theatre Passe Muraille. This year’s festival has expanded to embrace other art forms and venues. From storytellers to filmmakers and authors, from local black voices to national and international ones, rock.paper.sistahz5 is a smorgasbord for art enthusiasts.

“The festival is all about celebrating five years,” says ahdri zhina mandiela, artistic director for b current, the non-profit performance company, which produces the festival. “It’s something that I didn’t think would fly but needed to do and continued doing and now it’s five years. I say let’s throw up our hands and art in the air and see what comes out.  And that’s essentially what the programming is…I want the sistahz to come and bring their heart and their art and say here we are. We’re doing things.”

The festival certainly attracts many celebrated artists such as Dionne Brand, Nalo Hopkinson, M.NourbeSe Philip, Itah Sadu, Alison Sealy-Smith and Sylvia Hamilton to name a few.  “The lineup of writers and artists is a testament to the fact that we want to be doing something together,” says mandiela.

A veteran of black theatre, mandiela is well known as a talented artistic director. But filmmaking is also something she is passionate about which led to its inclusion in this year’s festival. Her first film on/black/stage/women released in the late 90’s, charts the progress of over 30 actors, directors, and playwrights and the projects they have created. Featured along with works from filmmakers Lesley Ewen and Sylvia Hamilton as part of cinema sistahz, the film is a roll call for black theatre women artists in Toronto.

“The piece has been shown a lot on broadcast and on video but as a film it hasn’t had that much play,” says mandiela. “I wanted to bring it back to a Toronto audience who may have seen it in other formats and other venues, and put it in the context of other material and filmmakers that are black women.”

At the core of the festival are 8 new plays by emerging and experienced artists. Mandiela classifies the festival as experimental theatre.  “It’s different (from mainstream theatre) in that all the pieces you are going to see are at their very beginning stages.  You are seeing the artist try out new material, new styles, new ways of working, and presenting.  I like to call it experimental so people have some sort of expectation. You may see artists on book as we say, script in hand.”

Her own work, stand.in, co-authored with Alison Sealy-Smith is a project that started back in 2002 at the first rock.paper.sistahz festival. “For me, this is an experimental process. I’ll actually be onstage as well as behind the scenes which I haven’t done in a while,” laughs mandiela.

Mandiela is encouraged by the growing interest in black theatre from the younger generation. “More and more are coming, not as performers but as creators, which we really need,” says mandiela. “They are coming as playwrights and are interested in directing. Djennie Laguerre who directed a piece for Summerworks last year is

directing Virgins Unite from Joan Kivanda. It’s great to see people moving in creative directions.”

Many of the pieces from emerging artists come through b currents training ensemble r’Aiz’n the sun, including Christine Harris’ Ten Redefined, Joan Kivanda’s Virgins Unite and Rebecca Fisseha’s Leaving Home.

“I’ve seen the germ of their work and I’m interested to see where it’s going,” beams mandiela.

As b current celebrates it’s sixteenth birthday, mandiela has reason to be proud.  B current, a black theatre performance company is still around, pushing the envelope with new work through rock.paper.sistahz, and will soon offer an official three year curriculum where members will graduate from a certified theatre program.

It’s been an exciting time for mandiela. Rock.paper.sistahz has grown and continues to attract a wide audience. With funding from the Canadian Heritage department, mandiela hopes this new multidisciplinary direction will continue. “It’s growth that we’re appreciating, nurturing and loving…”

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