By Neil Armstrong
|Photo contributed. Daniel Jelani Ellis, creator of 'speaking of sneaking' at The Theatre Centre in Toronto, May 2-11, 2018.|
A new theatre piece by emerging artist, Daniel Jelani Ellis, will debut in May as part of Why Not Theatre’s The RISER Project in Toronto.
“speaking of sneaking” is inspired by Ellis’ experiences of growing up queer in Jamaica and finding home in Canada. It runs at The Theatre Centre from May 2-11.
It is about displacement, desperation and deception, and described as “a multidisciplinary mash-up of dance, poetry and pantomime where the archetypal Jamaican ginnal and the mythical African Anansi meet.”
Ellis, 28, is interested in investigating the complex relationship between immigration and displacement, yard and foreign, home and abroad.
He says the piece started in what is now called the Emerging Creators Unit at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in 2010/2011.
Ellis had taken some time off from the University of Toronto where he was a student to take advantage of as many opportunities as he could in theatre.
He said initially his creation was very biographical, a meditation on his life.
It examined language and the ways in which Ellis code-switched, speaking Jamaican nation language to his family but at work and school using a Canadian accent.
As a result, he created a 25-minute piece to explore questions like “do I have a language?” and “what is my voice?”
That experience in Buddies’ new works festival, Rhubarb, inspired him to pursue further training.
He also got support from some mentors who recommended that he attend the National Theatre School of Canada (NTS) in Montreal, which he did.
As the only black person in his class, the artist says he had to negotiate that in ways that were not always “nourishing for education.”
“It just made me want to continue to explore this idea of displacement or trying to root yourself if you’ve been displaced, and I was working on it through NTS.”
He continued to work on it after graduating, sought support in dramaturgy and his application to The Riser Project was successful.
|Photo contributed. The poster of 'speaking of sneaking.'|
Ellis says he has always been drawn to Anansi from as early as 7 years old when he was a member of the Jamaican performing arts troupe, the Little People and Teen Players Club, (now Cathy Levy Players).
During that time he received the Anansi award twice, an annual recognition presented to one of the younger players for their work in a show or in their classes.
“Even before I knew who Anansi was, other people were attributing Anansi to me,” says Ellis, noting that, “Sometimes I feel like I have to be a ginnal to survive.”
While growing up in Jamaica, Ellis was always in the company of artists, including his father, poet, actor and director Owen ‘Blakka’ Ellis who was teaching at the Jamaica School of Drama.
He said artists are a bit more sensitive and open to otherness so he did not experience any overt homophobia, but he still felt the need to “pretend and put on, to ginnal, to play a character in social situations at school or at work.”
Having immigrated here, he felt this was something he could leave behind but soon found out otherwise.
“In a heteronormative society, especially as a black man, it’s just assumed that you are heterosexual. So then I felt like I had to either assert that I wasn’t or I was being perceived as a threat because of my blackness. My assumptions of what I would encounter after having moved were all wrong and that’s part of the investigation.”
Ellis, who was a student at Campion College, moved here in 2004 with his family and completed two years of high school at Mother Theresa Catholic Secondary in Malvern, Scarborough.
“I don’t even know if I had a choice. It feels so much like a calling that I’ve just answered,” he says about choosing theatre as a career and being from a very creative family.
“speaking of sneaking” is directed by di’b.young anitafrika and the choreographer is Brian Solomon.
Ellis says he is using African American feminist Audre Lorde’s biomythography and anitafrika’s monodrama methods in his work.
“I’m starting with my own experiences and my own journey through immigration and experiences of homophobia and all of that.”
He says his father loved using alliteration in his poetry and prose and he adopted that too in naming the piece “speaking of sneaking.”
“On one level, I like the rhythm and the sound of it, ‘speaking of sneaking,’ and it is text taken from the play.”
Ellis is currently appearing in “Risky Phil” at Young People’s Theatre, recently appeared in “Lukumi: a Dub Opera” at Tarragon Theatre, and has several other theatre and film credits.
[This story has been published in the North American Weekly Gleaner, April 19-25, 2018 issue.]