Wednesday, 28 February 2018

Caribbean Sci-fi Film 'Brown Girl Begins' Premieres in Toronto

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: Jelani Grant. From left: Emmanuel Kabongo, who stars as 'Tony,' Mouna Traore asn"Ti-Jeanne," Measha Brueggergosman as "Mama Ache," Sharon Lewis, the director; and Sonia Dhillon Tully as "Melba" of the film, 'Brown Girl Begins.'

The gala premiere of the film, “Brown Girl Begins,” directed by Sharon Lewis was held at Jackman Hall at the Art Gallery of Ontario amidst much glitz and glamour.

The Afrofuturist feature which is a prequel to Nalo Hopkinson's award-winning novel, Brown Girl in the Ring, had its debut at this special screening in Toronto on February 24 before opening at the Cineplex Cinemas Yonge-Dundas, March 2 to 8.

It was a celebration of Black Future Month with Lewis, Hopkinson and stars of the film.
Enthusiastic drumming escorted the actors, director, producers and creative team onto the red carpet.

Shortly after, there was a gala reception held in Walker Court featuring performances by musicians in the film: the legendary calypsonian David Rudder, blues dynamo Shakura S’Aida and opera sensation Measha Brueggergosman. 

“Brown Girl Begins” is an afrofuturist feature film about a young black woman who is trapped in a world forced upon her. Ti-Jeanne, a reluctant priestess, must resurrect Caribbean spirits and survive the possession ritual that killed her mother, or her people will die. 

S’Aida, who plays Mami, is a huge fan of Nalo Hopkinson’s novel. She read the book several times and knew the major part that Mami has in the story.

“I think it was an embodiment of every mom that I’ve known, every grandmother that I’ve known, and also a really huge embodiment of what I knew Nalo accomplished in the book, which was this strong character who only wants her children, her daughter, granddaughter to survive. 

"And that’s what we do as women, as parents, is we’re tough on them cause we know that we have to make them tough to get through the world. So for me it was a lot of pressure to have this role but it was also very gratifying to be able to embody everything I’ve learned as a mother from my mother, from my grandmother,” she says about her role as Mami.

S’Aida says this is a full circle for her because Hopkinson’s book was the first sci-fi book that she had ever read.

“It was in my neighbourhood, and it was in my city, and it was by my friend and I saw myself in the story. And because I read Nalo first I was able to then go to other authors, other black female sci-fi authors and read their works and from there I went on to other sci-fi works so this book, ‘Brown Girl in the Ring,’ actually started my whole love of sci-fi, and so that whole thing about Afrofuturism for me is normal because Nalo normalized it before it was actually normal. And then she turned me on to Octavia Butler and all these other women who are just wonderful.”

Mouna Traore, who plays Ti-Jeanne, says it was a lot of work.

“I think we all dream of being a lead actor, like working on a film and being the star but when you actually have to do it and you’re in every single scene and you’re in every single day, there’s nothing that can prepare you for the amount of work that you have to bring. And also being able to like do things on the fly and just roll with it because things change all the time so it was a lot of work. It was exciting, it was crazy, it was hard, it was tiring; it was everything that your dream job should be.”

Traore said dealing with the Caribbean spirits in the film was very interesting and kind of familiar for her because her mother is Haitian.

“And so I grew up with her spirituality around me and I had a very strong understanding going into the project of like Haitian spirits, the Loa, and having my own connection with them. I don’t remember what I did but I probably did some sort of ceremony before I started the project because I usually do. But it was marvelous to see how Sharon brought them to life, living representations of, like Papa Legba, and whatnot; it’s beautiful.”

Describing herself as a sci-fi fantasy fan, especially of afrofuturism in the last few years, Traore said she was only introduced to Octavia Butler a year and a half ago and since then she has read all of her books, except one which is saving “because I need that for a rainy day.”

She said it is her favourite genre and she thinks this is because when she was a kid she never saw herself in the genre before so now as an adult “it’s like the only thing I’m interested in.”

Emmanuel Kabongo who plays Tony says he felt fortunate and grateful to have worked with such wonderful and powerful women of colour such as Lewis, the director; Traore, his lover in the film; S’Aida, and Jenn Paul, one of the producers.

“The ability to play this role and the opportunity to play Tony allowed me to tap into something that I don’t usually do which is the romantic lover. Usually I’m swayed towards more of the bad boy type, the guy that comes in as a troublemaker but this role allowed me to really delve into being able to fall in love with somebody on screen and not make it about me being all bad.

“I felt like this whole time throughout the film, through the shooting it allowed me to just tap into the vulnerability side of me that I don’t get to do when I’m playing  roles.”

Kabongo, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, says he grew up in the church so he believes in spirits and in a higher power.

“But for Tony I had to go in a place where that stuff was not real to me anymore because of the implications it had in terms of him losing a loved one. So for me, I had to go back and look at when in my own journey as an actor there were moments when I had to question my faith, question if God is real, questions if ghosts or sprits were real and there was a time when I basically just shut all that out.”

Director and writer Sharon Lewis was delighted with the premiere of her film.

“I am giddy with excitement seeing all these beautiful brown and black folks here, seeing it in Toronto at the Art Gallery of Ontario where there’s not usually a lot of us inside here, knowing that an afrofuturist film just played there, there’s an afrofuturist display, there’s art. You never see opera singers, soca and jazz and blues singers in one night or all in one film,” she says.

“I feel that it’s showing that we are diverse; there’s not one way to define us. Look at the Caribbean -- that’s who we are.”

Lewis said she was studying directing in Los Angeles at UCLA when she walked into her favorite bookstore and saw her colleague’s award winning novel, “Brown Girl in the Ring on the shelf.”

“#blackgirlmagic unfolded from the moment I read the first page. I knew then that I had to bring this bold and unique story of a young black teenage heroine growing up in a post apocalyptic Toronto to the screen. Just like the epic journey of Ti-Jeanne, the heroine in the book, it has taken me time to acquire the creative skills, experience and resources needed to be ready. And ready we ready. I am now part of a movement of people who have brought this project to life - all working their own magic. Ti-Jeanne. She is the future,” writes Lewis on the website about the film.

David Rudder has a cameo appearance in the film as a dweller in the Burn.

“Well, it was a strange experience in the sense that they’d ask to use some of my music in the film and I just happen to be on the set and the producer, Sharon, she’s a very close friend of my wife, then she said, would you like to do a little cameo spot in the film, kind of impromptu like.”

Rudder said he had done a little bit of acting before so it was a small spot but it was a recognizable one.

Brueggergosman plays “Mama Ache” and Nigel Shawn Williams plays the multiple roles of “Papa Legba,” “Jab Jab,” and “Brukfoot Sam.”
The cast also includes Sonia Dhillon Tully as “Melba,” Rachel Crawford as “Crack,” Allison Augustin as “Young Ti-Jeanne” and Hannah Chantee as “Grace.” The producers are Floyd Kane, Vince Buda and Jenn Paul.

Hopkinson, who is currently a professor of Creative Writing at the University of California Riverside in the U.S., said she was very pleased to see that Lewis succeeded in making the film.

She is the published author of nine novels, a collection of short stories and a chapbook, and the editor/co-editor of four anthologies.

The author lived in Toronto since 1977, but spent most of her first 16 years in the Caribbean, where she was born.

It took Lewis twenty years from the time she read Hopkinson’s novel to the premiere on the film in Toronto where it as shot.  She will be selling the film in Canada and the US and then it will be available by DVD, in I-tunes, and there is a planned tour for the Caribbean as well, possibly in April/May.

Itah Sadu of A Different Booklist Cultural Centre: The People's Residence and Sharon Lewis, writer and director of 'Brown Girl Begins' at the gala premiere and reception at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

Nalo Hopkinson, author of the novel, 'Brown Girl in the Ring,' and Maxine Bailey, vice-president of advancement for TIFF.

Photo credit: Jelani Grant.       Shakura S'Aida plays "Mami" in the film.

Photo credit: Jelani Grant.    David Rudder is a Burn dweller in the film.

Conversation at York University Focuses on Activism and Resistance

By Neil Armstrong

Photo contributed.   From left, Dionne Brand, Robyn Maynard and Angela Robertson in conversation about activism and resistance at a Black History Month event organized by the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora at York University in Toronto.

Two well-known black Canadian feminists recently met to reflect on the ways in which their activism and people of African descent resist the daily acts of gendered, classed and sexual racialization in Canadian society.

“Everyday Activism, Critical Resistance”  - a conversation with Toronto social activist Angela Robertson and Montreal community organizer Robyn Maynard facilitated by award-wining poet and documentarian Dionne Brand was held at York University in Toronto on February 15.

Organized by Dr. Carl James, the Jean Augustine Chair in Education, Community and Diaspora in partnership with the trade union, Unifor, James said he is trying to make the Chair as vibrant as it is supposed to be.

In introductory remarks after reading an excerpt of her book, “A Map to the Door of No Return,” Brand said it occurred to her while preparing for the panel “how crucial every act of speaking is in the lives of black people, how crucial every public forum is, what is at stake and what is always at stake in these acts of speech.”

“What is always at stake are the grounds of our survival and our liberation,” she said.

Brand noted that black people in Canada find themselves each day in a state of hyper-vigilance of having to organize against the ongoing attacks on their existence.

Robertson, who was conferred with an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from York University in October 2017, and Maynard, author of the book, “Policing Black Lives: State Violence in Canada from Slavery to the Present,” were invited to give their analysis of this particular moment and their own activism.

“I believe that just by being here in this conversation is part of that everyday activism and that it is an act of critical resistance to be in this space in a community of black folks and allies naming the presence and the prevalence of racism in our lives,” said Robertson.

She said it was important to acknowledge that the history of European settlement in Canada is marred by the genocide and exploitation of indigenous peoples, the theft of their land, and the continuing violence of their marginalization.

Robertson said immigrants who came under the promise of multiculturalism must recognize that it held in it the erasure of indigenous peoples.

“I must also underscore that through the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade African peoples were forcefully brought here as stolen people on stolen land. Hence the need for all of us who came after who seek to work for social justice in this country to be in solidarity and in alliance with indigenous peoples’ fight for land and social change.”

Robertson said she believes activism and critical resistance are necessary for “our survival, our sanity, our joy, under what bell hooks calls ‘white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.’”

She said the manifestation of this is seen in the rise and the rates of poverty of racialized communities, in the disparities of income for racialized workers, the widening educational achievement gap for black youth in high schools, the high rates of incarceration of black and indigenous children in the child welfare system, among other things.

“We don’t talk about class but we need to talk about class,” said Robertson.

She described this contemporary moment with a quote from scholar Rinaldo Walcott’s book, “Black Like Who,” in which he says: “Blackness is now everywhere in the city of Toronto but black people are nowhere.”

Robertson said she does not mean nowhere in terms of place, position and geography but instead that “we are nowhere being thought of by the system as valued in any meaningful way.”

Despite this, Robertson believes in the great promises contained in individual and collective activism and resistance “to vision and create the society we want.”

“Doing and visioning of something other than this is critical resistance and activism,” she said.

Robertson said activism and critical resistance is not just about responding to injustice, it is also about critical reflection “before we make the next move and after we have acted because our movement and our organizing can become fragmented.”

She cautioned that people could become arrogant and then create vulnerabilities in movements which will be exploited by white supremacist capitalist patriarchy.

She said her approach to everyday activism and critical resistance is that “your struggle for justice must be my struggle for justice.”

Angela Robertson, Jean Augustine and Robyn Maynard at a reception before the conversation "Everyday Activism, Critical Resistance" at York University in Toronto.

Maynard said there is a real value to Black History Month which is also to her Black Future Month which is something that could be used “even as we do this everyday activism critical resistance as a way of grounding ourselves both in our shared histories and in the ways that we are geared towards the future.”

Maynard said so much of what she has learned about where the community came from emanated from her discussions with elders, from combing through the archives of books, newspapers and masters’ theses.

“This means that it actually takes enormous amounts of dedication to find our stories despite the growing inroads of black scholars who have lovingly recorded our histories and left traces and left their mark,” she said, given the broader climate of ongoing erasure of black lives in this country.

Maynard said that as a young black woman living in Canada her learning has been facilitated by women like Brand and Robertson.

She continually re-reads the pages of “Our Lives,” Canada’s first black women’s newspaper and “We’re Rooted Here and They Can’t Pull Us Up: Essays in African Canadian Women’s History” in which Brand is a contributor, which brought the everyday activism of black women into her purview.

These, she said, in many ways grounded “the moment that we find ourselves today in what I really believe is a black feminist resurgence.”

Maynard said it was a gift to discover a black feminism that preceded her own “that was once unapologetic, queer, deeply critical of multiple systems of oppression that we as black women face – policing, immigration policy, and capitalism that is once racial and gendered.”

“I think as writers more broadly, as black writers in particular, leaving a mark is quite political in a place that is deliberately trying to erase and distort any trace of blackness.”

Maynard presented examples of what she described as fake news directed against black people in past media reports about Jamaican gangs in the 1980s, the welfare crisis in the 90s about Somali single mothers, the undermining of black activism, and what ended up justifying the deportation of five hundred Jamaicans in 1995.

“But when it comes to the visibility of black people as human beings that is where we continue to struggle.”

Maynard feels that there is a rhetorical shift underway and that blackness is being reconfigured in the Canadian landscape.

She said this is the result of decades of black struggle beginning in the 1970s and moving into now, and into what she believes in some ways is a tipping point for visibility.

The community organizer said recently Prime Minister Justin Trudeau finally recognized the existence of anti-black racism.

“I think there is a symbolic value in that I think it really demonstrates how far we have come as black activists that we can now force this issue into the public realm. But I think this new era of visibility also presents us with different challenges and different risks as well.”

Maynard said while it’s great to have anti-blackness recognized as a fact and not a fiction, notions of black excellence continue to be co-opted on the political level.

She said Canada has a black immigration minister who is set to possibly oversee one of the largest mass deportations of black people from Canadian soil in recent history, and Haitian members of parliament have been paid by the Canadian government to go to the United States and tell Haitians not to come to Canada.

“So whether black visibility is on the radar that does not necessarily mean that black lives matter. It doesn’t necessarily mean a transformative shift in the way that our society continues to be organized.”

Maynard said there are many lessons to learn from the decolonization movements and ongoing colonial realities of the Caribbean, in South Africa, in the United States “that we know that black prison guards, black police, black heads of state is not a stand-in for justice for black people. And, in some ways, it makes black liberation struggle more complex.”

She said these are some of the questions that black people should ask themselves: “How can we create struggles that cannot and will not be co-optable? What does it mean to move forward into something that is more than just integration, that actually moves into what it means to actually have black emancipation?”

[This story has been published in the Weekly Gleaner, March 1-March 7, 2018.]

Friday, 23 February 2018

New Research Study Focuses on HIV Prevention Drug in Ontario

By Neil Armstrong

Truvada PrEP (Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis)

A new research study on pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), a method of preventing HIV infection through the regular use of antiviral medication, is aiming to enroll 1250 patients using PrEP in Ontario.

 Jack Mohr, research coordinator of the Ontario PrEP Cohort Study at
St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto says the team is interested in getting information about PrEP and its study out to communities impacted by HIV.

PrEP has been slowly rolling out in Canada over the past several years, but has recently become more accessible because of the release of generic drugs and public coverage by provincial governments in Ontario and British Columbia.

“I think we’re at an interesting point where PrEP is becoming more widely available. It’s been something that’s been talked about for a while that the price of it was a major barrier for a long time. And we’re seeing that change particularly in Ontario so PrEP’s now available through the Ontario Drug Benefit Program so all sorts of different people would potentially have access to it for no cost.”

This includes young people who are on OHIP+, people who were accessing Ontario Works or Ontario Disability Support and there is coverage through Trillium for those who don’t have drug coverage.

Mohr said this is likely to result in a real ramping up of PrEP and there are questions about what barriers might continue to exist for people to access it and what the impact of PrEP is going to look like for folks.

“It’s really a great time to see how is it being used across the province by a sort of wide and diverse swath of people.”

The study, which is a community-based research project, examines how PrEP is being used across Ontario.

The research coordinator said PrEP is primarily being used by gay and bisexual men but it really has potential to benefit anyone who might be at risk for HIV.

“We’re really hoping as part of this project to do a lot of outreach to get the word about PrEP out to different communities that might benefit from it and then subsequently to have representation of those folks in the study so that we can see what the impact of PrEP is for African, Caribbean and Black (ACB) communities, for women, for transgender folks, and I think that will also help us answer certain specific questions different communities might have about PrEP.”

Mohr noted that one challenge they have seen is that many communities most impacted by HIV are not aware of PrEP and do not know that it is an option for them.

This is partly because the messaging about PrEP has been geared towards gay and bisexual men.

The research team includes members from organizations like the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP), and African and Caribbean Council on HIV/AIDS in Ontario.

Shannon Ryan, executive director of Black CAP, said the agency works with communities for whom conversations about condoms and HIV prevention are still a new thing so complexities of PrEP are new to many of the people they work with, with few exceptions.

“Increasingly, black gay men that we work with are building their awareness about PrEP. Secondarily, I think folks who are in current serious relationships who are black also have a sense of what PrEP is as well. We work with a lot of HIV positive men and women who are heterosexual who have negative partners who often having conversations about PrEP.”

Ryan said generally speaking there is a lack of awareness about PrEP in the broader black community.

Mohr said a lot of the existing clinical trials focus on gay and bisexual men but he also thinks word about PrEP has not trickled down to other folks quite as much.

He said even though the drug has been around for a while, it’s relatively new and not a lot of healthcare providers know about it and while a lot of social service providers are talking about it, the word has just been slow to get out about it as an option for people.

Mohr said they will be enrolling patients through a number of providers that are linked to this study.

These include healthcare providers in Toronto, Windsor, London, Guelph, Ottawa and Hamilton.

“Folks who are either taking PrEP or interested in starting will be told about this study and then be able to enroll and then we’ll be sort of doing follow-up appointments alongside their regular healthcare for PrEP.”

The research study will look at what impact PrEP might have on condom use, and by extension, rates of other sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

“We’re interested in looking at how is it impacting people’s sexual health and overall health. We’re curious to know what people’s experiences are on PrEP so we have a lot of questions about what people’s expectations are of taking PrEP and then also what’s their actual experiences over time.”

Garfield Durrant, MSM prevention coordinator at Black CAP, said this research will bring greater awareness to the public.

He believes people will also want to discuss it with their service providers to know more.

Ryan said one of the values of the study is that as they are working to promote the feasibility and access to PrEP in the broader black community they will have a strong foundation of research upon which to do that.

“This research will help us identify some of the questions and concerns that members of our community who could be using PrEP have as they’re considering that. So this helps us think about how he approach conversations with these folks, how we talk about issues of access which is often an issue for black communities around how we access health-related support.”

Ryan said the study will also give them good language to use to distill things down to very simple messages that members of the community are ready to hear.

He said condom use in the black community, whether it’s around black gay men or among black heterosexual folks is amazingly low.

“We’re talking about 15 to 20 per cent of people who are consistently using condoms,” said Ryan, noting that PrEP gives people another prevention tool to consider other than condoms.

This provides another opportunity for Black CAP to engage people in HIV prevention.

Ryan said they also recognize some of the barriers that those in the ACB communities will experience to access PrEP.

It’s expensive and often requires that clients have good health coverage or are able to access certain benefits to do that.

“Many folks in our community are not able to do that which goes back to the issue of health equity in healthcare sector as well. We often experience lower outcomes than everybody else and I think that would be the case with PrEP as well.”

He said while they are promoting PrEP in terms of use by individuals in the community, they also have to be pushing on the other side around structures and institutions that will be administering PrEP and create access to PrEP around ensuring that they are removing barriers to PrEP for members of the community.

Meanwhile, Mohr said there is some interesting existing research that points towards PrEP potentially reducing people’s anxiety about HIV, maybe making them more open to people living with HIV. These are things they would like to investigate more.

 “We know that for all sorts of different populations who might benefit from PrEP there’s barriers to accessing healthcare so we’re curious to see whether PrEP might be a way to re-engage folks in healthcare generally.”

Mohr said there’s a really robust healthcare program associated with PrEP.

“It’s not just taking a pill, it’s getting tested for HIV and other STIs every three months. It’s getting to regularly see a doctor and talk about sexual health and other issues that impact sexual health in a way that people might not experience with healthcare providers a lot, so there’s a potential for PrEP to be a gateway to improve healthcare access generally.”

They also know that there might continue to be barriers for people, for example, with public coverage because Canada does not have a pharmacare plan that covers everyone.

He said there are some service navigation issues there and also being able to maintain those regular appointments and maintain regular medication.

These can be a challenge for people if they are unstably housed or if they don’t have steady income so the research is trying to see where people might continue to fall through the gaps even when they are aware of this medication and even if they have been connected to a provider already.

The out-of-pocket cost for PrEP for someone who has no coverage is $250 per month for some of the generics.

That is about a quarter of the price of what it had been as a name brand but obviously that is still a really significant cost, said Mohr.

There are also a lot of different coverage options that people would have to navigate.

 Ontario Works might be covering many people who are lower income but if someone is working and earning some income but not a significant amount, they might be navigating the Trillium Plan that covers some drug costs, he said.

A newcomer in the country would encounter a lot of different healthcare plans covering different types of newcomers, some of them provide drug coverage; some don’t.

Mohr said service providers are ramping up their knowledge in that area to try to make this as easy as possible for people to access so that they are not having to navigate these complicated systems on their own.

He said PrEP is a good option even for folks who are regularly using condoms because they know that even when folks regularly want to use condoms they don’t necessarily always use them.

“We’ve seen a trend over the past several years even prior to PrEP’s entry in Canada that people aren’t always using condoms,” said Mohr, noting that in that landscape PrEP might actually be beneficial for people because part of using it is seeing a healthcare provider regularly and talking about their sexual health.

“I think we might see a lot of folks who are interested in PrEP who go to talk to a service provider who recognize maybe condoms actually make more sense for me than PrEP. Maybe my risk isn’t that high generally and condoms would make more sense than having to take a medication every day.”

Mohr said there is an opportunity that PrEP might actually have people re-engaging with more traditional types of sexual healthcare as well.

The overall objective of the research study is to improve access to PrEP with this information.

“So by transforming the services and the delivery of PrEP currently by being able to say we see that there is this access barrier say for African, Caribbean and Black communities, or for transgender women, and this is how you need to change how those services are provided.”

They also want to have a real link with community so that this research does not land in academic settings or clinical settings.

As a result they have a very large community-based research team made up of people from HIV organizations across the province.

“We’ll be doing a lot of outreach and educational events as data is coming out of this study so that we can start to answer some of those questions that folks have about PrEP.”

The recruitment will start at St. Michael’s Hospital first and as other sites get their ethics approval and undergo staff training they will be rolling out across the province over the next few months.

[A shorter version of this story is in the North American Weekly Gleaner, Feb. 22-28, 2018.]

Saturday, 17 February 2018

'Black Boys' Returns to Toronto After Tour to Other Canadian Cities

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: Jeremy Mimnagh  From left: Tawiah Ben M'Carthy, Thomas Olajide and Stephen Jackman-Torkoff in 'Black Boys' at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto.

After having its world premiere in Toronto two years ago, “Black Boys” created by the Saga Collectif is back and has toured Vancouver, Calgary and Montreal since mid-January.

The production will be back in Toronto for a two-week run from February 28 to March 11 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre.

“Black Boys” is a raw, intimate, and timely exploration of queer male Blackness, which is created from the lives of three people seeking a deeper understanding of themselves, of each other, and of how they encounter the world. 

As they explore their unique identities on stage, they subvert the ways in which gender, sexuality, and race are performed. Theatrical and intimate, “Black Boys” weaves together the ensemble’s own personal stories in search of an integrated self and a radical imagination.

Tawiah Ben M’Carthy of the cast of three – the others being Stephen Jackman-Torkoff and Thomas Olajide – describes their work as an art piece, not a play.

In 2017, “Black Boys” was nominated for a Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Performance – Ensemble. 

 “I’ll be the first person to tell you that ‘Black Boys’ is not a play because it doesn’t fit into the structure of what a play is supposed to be and it was a bit challenging during our run here in Toronto to have people who do not get it. And when I say get it, most of them don’t get it because it’s not a chronological play. They won’t see something that has a beginning, a middle, and an end,” he said regarding the reviews of its Toronto premiere in 2016.

Having come up with something requiring people to think a bit outside the box, it sometimes felt like they were hitting against a brick wall. 

“Being creators of the show that was a challenge that we went through quite a bit,” he said, noting that they wanted people to come in and be engaged from the beginning to the end.

“It felt like because it wasn’t a traditional piece of theatre it was something that people didn’t know what to do with. But the exciting part is that we get to do it again and again and the more we do it the more people are going ‘oh we get it,’” he said.

People are now saying it’s not a play, it’s an experience and the engagement continues beyond the play, he said.

Ben M’Carthy says the reception to the tour has been great and the conversations, spectacular.

He said young people and people of varying backgrounds could relate to the story that seems to be so specific.

“It’s exciting when you create something like that, that seems a bit specific, but have everyone watch it and go, oh I connect with that or relate with that.”

The playwright and actor said they started workshopping “Black Boys” in 2013 and through to 2016 when they had three workshops in Toronto. In November that year it premiered at Buddies.

“It was about a three-and-a-half year process of creating the show – off and on – because we’re all doing different things in other places.”  

There are a few points in the play open to improvisation, especially with Jackman-Torkoff’s character, where he might change what he says depending on the room they are in and the day of the week. Aside from that, everything has remained the same in the remount.

In terms of any revelations for him in it, Ben M’Carthy says it’s coming to the point of understanding the complexity of black masculinity and how it manifests itself, and also challenging what is known to be the stereotypical perception of what black masculinity is supposed to look like.

“I don’t think it’s something that I fully understand and that I understood, and I don’t think it’s something that I even understand now or fully articulate. But what I can say through the experience of working on such a project and now even traveling with it is I’m coming to the understanding that it actually does manifest itself in different forms.”

He acknowledges that there is no single definition or archetype of black masculinity that will “help us move forward, especially when it comes to the conversation of queer identity.”

The actor noted that queerness and sexuality are not the same thing; they’re different.

“Having that conversation, just understanding that masculinity expresses itself in different forms, I believe, is the way forward. I’m beginning to understand that more and more each time I work on the show.”

Ben M’Carthy said he is surprised how much of a deeper understanding he gets of what is going on onstage each time he does the show.

When it premiered in Toronto, he said the conversation was already happening with what was happening with Black Lives Matter and there was an audience hungry for the message.

He felt that although the production was made in Toronto by Torontonians it wasn’t just for this city; hence the decision to go on tour to activate conversations in other spaces.

After the Toronto performances, all three will be going off to do their own thing to acquire new skills and come back in the future to work on a new project. The process has worked well for them. 

Director, Jonathan Seinen, is doing his masters at Columbia University, Olajide is completing the Canadian Film Centre (CFC) film program, Jackman-Torkoff is about to act inThe Glass Menagerie’ at the Grand Theatre In London, Ontario, and Ben M’Carthy will be an intern director for a season at the Shaw Festival.

The creative team includes choreographer, Virgilia Griffith; dramaturge, Mel Hague; and designers Rachel Forbes (set and costume), Stephen Surlin (sound and video), and Jareth Li (lighting).

Griffith is directing a new play, “Ceremony,” at the 39th Rhubarb Festival this month.

[This story was published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, Feb. 15-21, 2018.]

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Ronald K. Brown's EVIDENCE Tells a Powerful Story

By Neil Armstrong
A Review
Photo credit: Lelund Durond Thompson      "Four Corners" by Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE (New York)

Ronald K. Brown’s EVIDENCE, a dance company based in Brooklyn, New York presented three wonderful performances at the Fleck Dance Theatre at Harbourfront Centre on February 2 and 3. This was dance Immersion’s 2018 showcase presentation.

Creating an atmosphere of connection, EVIDENCE blends traditional African dance with contemporary choreography and spoken word. It uses movement as a way to reinforce the importance of community in contemporary African culture, and to acquaint audiences with the beauty of traditional African forms and rhythms.

Patrons in attendance witnessed the bounding leaps, passionate embraces, and elongated lines, signatures of Brown’s masterful movement which creates deeply emotional works with a unique view of human struggles, tragedies, and triumphs.

“I hope that when people see the work, their spirits are lifted. I am interested in sharing perspectives through modern dance, theater and kinetic storytelling. I want my work to be evidence of these perspectives,” says Brown, the artistic director, in a media release.

The company performed three selected pieces from their repertory: “Four Corners,” “New Conversations,” and “Come Ye.”

“Four Corners” (2014/2016) with music by Carl Hancock Rux, Rahsaan Roland Kirk and North African vocalist Yacoub showcases Brown’s signature blend of modern dance and West African expression.

He envisions four angels standing on the four corners of the earth holding the four winds in this powerful and hope-filled journey of tribulation, devotion and triumph.

The dancers – Demetrius Burns, Arcell Cabuag, Shayla Caldwell, Courtney Paige Ross, Annique Roberts and Keon Thoulous – are well coordinated in their choreography moving in sync with each other, enhanced by the brilliant costume design of Keiko Voltaire and lighting design by Tsubsa Kamei.

“New Conversations” (2018) features an original score from composer Arturo O’Farrill with costume design by Keiko Voltaire and lighting design by Tsubasa Kamei.

The dance explores what is Devine and required for growth and understanding through the wisdom of women and female ancestors echoing tension, agitation and liberation.
It featured all the dancers mentioned above with the addition of Kevyn Ryan Butler and Janeill Cooper.

The performances ended with the powerful “Come Ye” (2003) which includes music by Nina Simone and Fela Anikulapo Kuti and a video collage by Robert Penn.

It’s a multimedia work utilizing African, Caribbean, modern, ballet and social dance styles to summon warriors, angels and activists dedicated to the pursuit of liberation and peace amidst the struggles of human conflict.

"'Come Ye' is a call to all those living in fear, all those willing to fight for their lives, and ultimately, to peace as guide and warrior," notes a description of the work. 

The costumes by Omotayo Wunmi Olaiya and lighting by Brenda Gray wonderfully complemented the movements and mood of the dancers.

It was refreshing to see the inclusion of figures such as Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley and others across the African diaspora in Penn’s collage which made the connections about the liberation of Africans worldwide.

Photo credit: Saya Hishikawa     "Four Corners" (Ronald K. Brown/EVIDENCE)

Named one of the most profound choreographers of modern dance by The New York Times, Brown founded EVIDENCE (New York) in 1985 to promote the understanding of the human experience in the African Diaspora through dance and storytelling.

EVIDENCE also brings arts education and cultural connections to local communities that have historically lacked these experiences.

On February 4, dance Immersion’s Workshop Series presented two public workshops (one for children and the other for adults) with Brown at the Theatre Studio 313, Dancemakers Studios in the Distillery District.

dance Immersion is a not-for-profit organization that produces, promotes and supports dancers and dances of the African Diaspora.

The organization was established in 1994 to address the need for additional presentation, skill development, and networking opportunities for dance artists of African descent.

Programs introduce various styles of dance and dance artists to the public through a variety of activities that provide a nurturing and supportive environment for professional and emerging dance artists who work and explore diverse styles and expressions. 

Artists seeking connections look to dance Immersion to bridge the gap and make it possible to develop their artistry on a global scale. 

Review of Watah Theatre Double Bill at Crow's Theatre in Toronto

By Neil Armstrong

 The Watah Theatre in Residency with Crow's Theatre is presenting the world premieres of Najla Nubyanluv’s play, “I Cannot Lose My Mind,” and an excerpt workshop reading of d’bi.young anitafrika’s exciting new play, “Once Upon A Black Boy,” a double bill at the Streetcar Crowsnest from February 1 to February 17, 2018.

“Once Upon A Black Boy” by d’bi.young anitafrika is a new bio-myth dub theatre piece, exploring the coming-of-age of Tsuki, a 13 year old black boy living in Toronto with his mother who was recently diagnosed with cancer. Both Tsuki and his mother, Cha, navigate the complex landscapes of race, class, gender, sexual orientation, motherhood, black masculinity and death.  

Anitafrika is skillful at playing the double roles of Cha and Tsuki in her voice inflections, body language and idiosyncrasies. It is through her characterization of both that we see the love and strains of the relationship between mother and son.

“I Cannot Lose My Mind” by Najla Nubyanluv tells the story of a young womxn's quest to rid herself of depression. When she meets a doctor who finds that many of her patients living with mental illness are having the same recurring dreams, their paths align on an unexpected afrofuturistic quest for a cure and a way to heal.

Nubyanluv’s clever wit is on display in the several characters she plays within a clinical setting where she is dealing with medical professionals and their pronouncements of her depression.

In the playwright’s notes, she notes that: “Depression physically and mentally tried to kill me. Depression triggered by oppression, fed by trauma and memories that don’t want to become my past but want to prevail. I am learning what it means to truly love myself. That is an invaluable lifelong journey and lesson that I may not have learned to appreciate without being born into this world with this experience.”

She says she is still “learning to appreciate myself and to appreciate love and compassion for others with mental illness.”

In many ways this play is therapeutic for Nubyanluv and it seemed to have been so for many of the people who packed into the Crow’s Theatre on the opening night. They expressed appreciation for the playwright and actor being vulnerable onstage and tackling such a sensitive subject.

“d’bi told me to speak to the little girl in me. That little girl has finally set down a burden that she no longer has to carry. I don’t have shame about my illness. I see a bright future exists, in this great mind of mine. Endless possibilities exist in the magic of my dreams,” writes Nubyanluv.

Both works are definitely worth seeing before they close on February 17.

The play and workshop reading are being presented at the Streetcar Crowsnest, 345 Carlaw Avenue in Toronto.

From February 26 to March 3, the Watah Theatre in Residency with Crow’s Theatre presents The Audre Lorde Theatre Festival at Streetcar Crowsnest.