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June 5, 2020

Reflections from our Artistic Director

Reflection from our Artistic Director Weyni Mengesha on June 5, 2020

While sitting down for dinner with my husband and two little boys this past February, my five-year-old said “Mom, I know that you are Black and dad is White, but I think I will choose being White, just in case slavery comes back.”

He had just heard a story at school about slavery for Black history month, and this seemed to be a logical conclusion to him. I remember trying to breathe, thinking “ok, we can handle this.” I knew we just needed to do the work and expose him to many more things that would empower him to embrace who he is. However, here we are three months later and I have been struggling to tell him why people are protesting all over the world. He knows people are marching against people dying at the hands of police, but every time I try to tell him it’s because they were Black, it gets choked in my throat. I can’t bear the idea of this affirming to him that it is dangerous to be Black. I know I will have to tell him the whole truth, though.  I will not be able to hide him from the realities of this world. 

This is why I believe so deeply in storytelling; we can create narratives that counteract the violent messaging that being Black means you are not valued or loved. I came to the theatre for this very reason. I was 16 years old, growing up in Scarborough and president of our Black student organization in high school. Theatre became the tool we used to reflect our voice and our truth. We inherently knew the danger of “a single story”, like novelist Chimanada Ngozi Adichie, whose Ted Talk you can watch here:

25 years later I am the Artistic Director of one of the largest theatres in one of the most multicultural cities in the world. However, it can still feel like nothing has changed. I think of Black artists before me like Djanet Sears and ahdri zhina mandiela who paved the way, mentoring me and giving me my first jobs. I think of all the work I have done in collaboration with Canadian BIPOC artists to bring new stories to stages and TV around the world. I am proud of these things and the changes we are beginning to make at Soulpepper, but I know that there is still so much work to do.  Watching the Black Lives Matter movement spread around the world reminds me of the Langston Hughes’ poem “What happens to a dream deferred? ” .

What happens to a dream deferred?

Does it dry up
like a raisin in the sun?
Or fester like a sore-
and then run?
Does it stink like rotten meat?
Or crust and sugar over- like a syrupy sweet?
Maybe it just sags
like a heavy load.

Or does it explode

This was the poem that inspired Lorraine Hansberry’s  “A Raisin in the Sun”, the first play I ever worked on as a young director at Soulpepper. Now, as Artistic Director, I think about that poem and see this explosion of protests as a line in the sand. We cannot continue without justice, without a call to action. We will take a good look at the representation of Black voices, Indigenous and other marginalized voices, throughout our organization. It is the only way that we can truly celebrate who we are as a cultural hub in a multicultural city. I continue to believe that theatre can be a tool to reflect our voices, speak the truth, and ignite change, but we have to ensure that systemically we are set up to make that change in a meaningful way.  And we must- we absolutely must- have change. It is the only way we will thrive.

PS. As far as me speaking to my son, there is a beautiful novel that I will re-read to prepare me for this that I recommend, by Ta-Nehisi Coates, called “Between the World and Me”.