by Savannah Taylor
I recently sat down with d’bi.young anitafrika to discuss the importance of theatre in our digital age and to learn more about how The Watah theatre, a professional theatre company founded by d’bi.young, cultivates such a necessary space in this urgent time
The Watah Theatre – grounded in African Oral Storytelling traditions – is a crossroads where the radical performance traditions of Dubpoetry, Caribbean theatrical storytelling and Black wombanist thought, intersect with critical Pan-Africanist theory-into-practice, Ifa-Tao-Buddhist principles, balanced by the global mind-body healing modalities of Ashtanga Yoga and Qi Gong. Arts-engagement sits at the core of the organization’s commitment to providing world peoples with the tools to self-actualize, create urgent art and uncover crucial mentorship skills for each one to teach one; facilitating an ongoing exploration of our place on this planet and in this cosmos. Watah celebrates the artist as a whole human entity who mirrors society and helps to shape it circularly and inwardly. Like being in a mother’s loving womb where the child is nurtured and cultivated, Watah is a cauldron of cultivation for a new generation of storytellers.
Savannah Taylor: Can you introduce yourself ?
D’bi Young Anitafrika: My name is d’bi young anitafrika and I am a storyteller who writes plays, performs in monodramas and multi-character plays, who mentors, writes dub poetry, who plays with a band, who writes revolutionary theory and who’s a mother.
Savannah: Can tell us more about the Watah Theatre?
D’bi Young: The Watah Theatre is a professional theatre company and also training ground for emerging and newly emerging artists. It’s primarily for black artist and within that it is primarily for artist who identify as women. Our doors are open to people of colour, Indigenous people, LGBTQ people and trans people. We’ve really never turned anyone away but everyone who comes through our doors knows that we are primarily serving African Canadian artists because that is absolutely crucial right now.
Savannah: Theatre isn’t the first thing I would think of if someone asked me about media but why do you think is it still so crucial in 2016?
D’bi Young: I think theatre is media because media is storytelling and media is storytelling geared towards people and media has very specific objectives. Whatever media we’re talking about that propaganda and narrativizing storytelling is geared towards getting people’s attention in a particular way. Theatre is storytelling as well and it is also geared towards getting people’s attention in a particular way. [That’s why] I really do feel that we can say theatre is a type of media. What’s most important to me when I think of all of this is what stories are we telling? You know? I can’t help but think about what has just happened in the United States of America. A part of me feels like acknowledging that, as a black queer women, artist and mother, my reality has always been to create space for myself to be valued, to treated fairly, to be treated equally and that has been life long reality. Part of me feels like, well the world that you live in is going to continue to be the world that you live in. Then there is another part of me that can’t help but respond to the over aggression that has already begun and will continue to escalate given that the veil that was prior somewhat concealing the deep hatred of black people, indigenous people, LGBTQ people and differently abled people, immigrants, the working class and the working poor. Basically, all the people who are not the elite and who are not the upper middle class. To see the sheer disdain for us, even while I recognize that this life of struggle will continue, there is a tangible worry. There is now a tangible worry around the fact that people have been issued a renewed license to be violent. So when I think about media and I think about theatre and I think about the role that the media played in getting Donald Trump elected and the role that the theatre that we’re making plays in maintaining systems of inequality, I can’t help but think about what stories are we going to tell?
Savannah: As a student at Watah, I know that those are questions we ask ourselves and we talk about. How do you feel Watah provides tools for emerging artist to create this space that you mentioned earlier?
D’bi Young: More so now then ever, I am deeply appreciating Watah and the work that we’re doing here. Sometimes you get confirmation about the choices you’re making. More so than ever, I am reminding myself and saying, “d’bi just stay focused. Just stay focused”. What we are doing in here is absolutely revolutionary and simple. It’s not high-inaccessible science or intellectualism, it’s actually pretty basic. Our premise here is that each one of us has been born into a birth right that says we deserve to self-actualize. It’s that simple. So, colour, race, ethnicity, gender, social standing, all of these ways that we create these walls that people have to climb in order to prove their humanity, In this space we say we don’t actually believe that narrative and we’re going to try to practice what it looks like to not believe in that narrative. We’re not even working in counter-narratives; we’re not even working in opposition to those narratives. Actually, we’re centering ourselves and saying those narratives are not the focal point, the focal point is us. This, more than ever, I’m so deeply thankful for and we have a set of real tools to support us through doing this. They are real and tangible tools that when we sit down and we dialogue about self-knowledge; about the stories we’ve been told and orality; and the rhythmic rituals of our lives; and the politics of our own power and the language of our own bodies and mouths; and about what is urgent and sacred to us and how we embody our integrity. That is not intangible. That is not theatrical mumbo jumbo. It’s so important that as we work through these ideas around self-actualization that we have tangibles. My physical body, my mental body, my community body, my economic body, my emotional body, these are real pieces that we experience every day and I am so bolstered by the fact that this is how I spend my time. As I look around at the shear madness that is going on, I am like how do I spend my time? What do I spend my time doing? It feels like a daunting time but it also feels like, right here inside of me are the tools I need to move through these times. You know? That’s a really rounding feeling.
Savannah: Can you explain in more detail self-actualization and the S.O.R.P.L.U.S.I Method is?
D’bi Young: Here at Watah we really encourage each artist to define for themselves these ideas. Because we’re unique, because we each have a particular framework and way or lense through which we see the world you’re never going to get any two people, at least here, defining something in the same way. Which is brilliant because it means that if you have a definition and I have a definition it means that together we can sit and look at all our definitions and learn from each other. That’s really crucial. Other models out there tell us that there is one way and one direction. One, phallic white, male, patriarchal framework but what we come from as black people and women identified people is that we come from the circle, from the collective. In that model, these are indigenous models, in the collective each point on the circle is crucial. So, in defining self actualization, I feel for me it could the ability to grow into the deepest version of one’s self. What’s the deepest version of one’s self? I feel like it is where one gets to explore and expand into one’s most profound integrities. What is one’s most profound integrities? Well, I feel like that is the ability to truth tell without self-deception to the best of one’s ability in each and every moment. I feel like the idea of self-actualization is both at once extremely dynamic and complex but also simple.
In terms of the Anitafrika Method, the method is essentially a distillation of all the mentorship that I’ve received over a lifetime. What I’ve done is taken those life lessons and highlighted what I feel are eight crucial principles. Four of those principles directly come out of my mother’s work in theorizing dub [theatre] in Jamaica. The four principles that directly come out of her work are politics, language, performance and music. I tweaked them a bit and so language is language of communication, non-verbal communication; music became rhythm, rhythm as ritual; politics became politics and political context; and performance became orality. Then I added four other principles self-knowledge, urgency, sacredness and integrity [ Which creates the acronym S.O.R.P.L.U.S.I] . That then forms half a system that is balanced with eight bodies [some I mentioned earlier]which includes the physical, mental, emotional, creative, spiritual, economic, community, and beyond body. So together with the principles and the bodies we have a series of questions we ask, per principle, and also a series of meditations that accompany these questions. It’s really such a beautiful thing. Of course I’ve had the pleasure of being in the lab with all of you who teach me every day what the method actually means.
The Watah theatre currently has a funding campaign online in order to continue to provide the mentorship discussed above. Will YOU help SAVE Watah? Visit www.gofundme.com/savewatah to read more on how you can help.
dbi young anitafrika
d’bi.young anitafrika is a queer Black feminist artist, United Nations speaker, Canadian Poet of Honor, InkTalks/TED speaker and YWCA Woman of Distinction. The internationally celebrated African-Jamaican dubpoet, dramatist, educator, director and dramaturge is also a 3 time Dora Award winning writer-performer for her epic triptych of plays The Sankofa Trilogy and The Orisha Trilogy. anitafrika’s groundbreaking creative praxis – the Anitafrika Method – uses the Sorplusi Principles as an intersectional anti-oppression human development framework, which is studied and practiced globally by artists, instigators and policy-makers. d’bi is the founding Artistic Director of Watah; Canada’s only professional theatre company that offers year-long tuition-free artist residencies to Black and diverse artist-instigators. She is also the founder and CEO of The Sorplusi Institute and Sorplusi Publishing, a research-based social enterprise with a micro press extension producing and publishing works by Black and diverse creators. Author of 7 plays, 6 dub albums and 5 books, d’bi has toured nationally and internationally.