Theater as transformative action

Racism, motherhood, plastic surgery and the politics of love — these are some of the issues that are being dealt with theatrically as part of FemFest 2010: On the Edge. Designed to celebrate women and diversity, the festival is a forum where women’s voices are heard and their talents are showcased.

Sarasvàti Productions, which has been in Winnipeg since 2000 and organizes FemFest, is dedicated to socially conscious theatre. As part of a conscientious ethic, their vision is to “[ . . . ] use theatre as a medium to initiate discourse on issues of relevance to the community, in particular disenfranchised sectors of the community.” Acknowledging that women in theatre in Canada are a minority, FemFest provides opportunities not only for theatre actors, but for women directors, designers and playwrights as well.

The University of Manitoba has three people from the theatre program representing at the festival. Brenda McLean is an instructor with the U of M’s theatre program and is one of the directors at Femfest. Megan Andres is a recent graduate of the theatre program and is working as a festival production assistant. Also, current theatre student Kaitlynn Porath is acting in one of the festival’s plays.

One of the features of this year’s festival is the edgy Jamaican-Canadian artist d’bi.young. Commenting on the significance of women-centered forums such as FemFest, Young explains that “any dialogue / action on social change must have at its nucleus a commitment to improving the status of womben. You heal the womben, you heal the society over time as the womben will pass on the healing knowledges to the children — female, male and all who are in and outside of those categories.”

Characterizing herself as a dubpoet, monodramatist and educator, she is dedicated to practicing art for the purpose of social transformation. “I create art that allows me — and the people who witness and participate in my work — to locate ourselves in complex conversations around identity, belonging, community, herstory, family, displacement and other ways in which we intersect and overlap,” explains Young in her wombanifesto.

Emerging from a matrilineal line of storytellers, the dubpoetry movement in Jamaica was Young’s first encounter with inspiration. “My mother (Anita Stewart) was one of the first womban dubpoets and I emulate her and my other elders. I witnessed them daily, poeticizing their struggles for liberation and equality,” recalls Young. Grounding her work in a strong sense of community, mentorship is also of primary importance to Young. She cites dubpoetry artist Ahdri Zhina Mandiela as one of her most prized mentors and is now a mentor herself.

Young recently completed a new album called Wombanifesto. She describes it as “a celebration of the fierce, the fearless and the feminist in all of us.” Boasting “a rebellious collection of 16 cross-genre dubtryp tracks,” the album features artists from Havana, Montreal and Toronto. Cuban producer Pablo Herrera and Armenian-Egyptian producer Haig Vartzbedian also contributed their genius to the album. Wombanifesto launches at FemFest’s closing cabaret on Oct. 2 at 9:00 p.m.

The play she, which Young wrote and now performs, will take place on Thursday Sept. 30 at 7:00 p.m. and Friday Oct. 1 at the same time. Young explains that this work “looks at a black womban who is splintered into many pieces and many people. She fights herself, her desires, her fears.” She adds that “much of the material comes from my own lived experience. The piece is an attempt to reconcile the contradicting social messages womben ingest daily.”

Young categorizes this work as a biomyth, a term borrowed from poet Audre Lorde. Symbolizing “the union between the biographical and the mythologized in art making,” Young clarifies that biomyth monodrama, as she practices it, is “a theatrical solo-performance work, written and acted by the same person, inspired by parts of the creator’s biographical experience using poetry, music, myth, magic, monologue and dialogue — primarily with the audience — to weave the story together.”

Using the acronym ORPLUSI to represent the storytelling principles of orality, rhythm, political content and context, language, urgency, sacredness and integrity, Young explains that “these fundamental principles are used to guide the monodramatic process. Through the intersection of these ideas, the monodramatist can explore and expand their relationship with and among themselves as storyteller, the village(s) and social transformation.”

Following Thursday’s performance, Young will participate in an artist talkback session. On Saturday Oct. 2 she is facilitating a workshop called the storyteller’s integrity: a dubpoetry master class. All events are taking place at the Canwest Centre for Theatre and Film at the University of Winnipeg.