D'bi.young.anitafrika is a name she gave herself.
A rising star in Canadian theatre as a playwright and actor, she was called Debbie as a child, but she changed the spelling in order to make it her own. Young is the surname of her father. But the added surname, anitafrika, is completely her own creation. Anita is her mother's first name; afrika refers to her African heritage. She christened the name when her son was born two years ago, so she could give it to him. It was symbolic of a new beginning, the new human being, the next generation, and how it is both connected to, and a break from, the past.
Young.anitafrika wants to understand her past, but not let it possess her. She uses her work, its language and performance, as a way to force transformation, in her audience, through telling others her stories, but most importantly, in herself.
And there has been a lot of change.
This year, she won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards for blood.claat -- best new play and best actress for her performance in it. A highly autobiographical story of a 15-year old Jamaican girl, Mudgu, the play features one actor who morphs into a series of characters. Blood.claat is a Jamaican curse word for the cloth women use during menstruation, and young.anitafrika uses the metaphor of blood to explore issues of sexuality, abuse, violence, feminism and class. The play, her fifth, was also selected to represent Canada at the AIDS conference this past week. It is the first of a trilogy entitled three faces of mudgu, and will be followed by androgyne and chronicles in dub, which are still in development.
Her past is not as happy.
From the age of 5 until she was 13, she was sexually molested by her aunt's husband. She only spoke about it to the women in her family when she was 13. "My family believed me," she says with a wide, childlike smile, adding that often there's so much denial that children's stories of abuse are dismissed. "It was the beginning of the knowing-myself process," she says. She is now 28.
For anyone who saw her Dora-nominated performance as a sexually abused teenager in the hit play 'da Kink in My Hair in 2004, it is not a surprise to discover that she knew the fear and shame of her character's experience. She outshone everyone in that play with monologues of compelling authenticity.
It was part of her effort to turn her pain into empowerment. "Doing a play like 'da Kink propelled me to such a place of healing," she explains. "And I'm really interested in that. I want to look at the ways in which our experiences shape us into the people we are becoming. We have the chance to use those experiences, not to foster bitterness and hatred, but to really focus on a complex understanding of humanity, how humanity works."
Dressed in colourful clothes and adorned with dangling grape-like earrings, a dramatic necklace, a silver ring in her nose and a curly mass of orange-dyed hair pulled on top of her head, she speaks in long, passionate passages. When I have to interrupt her, to shift her to a different subject or ask for more explanation of something, it's like trying to stop rain or change the direction of wind. Her answers feel like purges.
"Make no mistake," she says at one point. "I am an angry person."
When she tackles the subject of sexual abuse, she purposefully implicates herself, she explains. "I've learned that when you implicate yourself in the work, then there is not a hierarchy between the storyteller and the people you are talking to. For me to do that, it keeps me grounded in order to create the art, in order to have integrity with the art."
Young.anitafrika grew up with storytelling. Her mother, Anita Stewart, was a well-known dub poet in Jamaica in the seventies. Dub poetry is considered a branch of reggae music, using dubs or copies of existing music tracks as background to politically charged storytelling in the Jamaican dialect. When she was 4, young.anitafrika started theatre school. She, too, is a dub poet, and is working on her fourth CD, ky.ky. She has also published a book of poetry, art on black.
When her parents immigrated to Canada, they left their only child behind with her grandmother and aunt. At the age of 16, young.anitafrika begged her mother to let her come to Toronto. She attended Jarvis Collegiate in downtown Toronto and later set off to study theatre and English literature at McGill University in Montreal. But she left the program after a year. She entered Concordia University, but dropped out of that institution as well. "I just wanted to get involved with the work [of writing] and I felt I was distracted by all the other stuff I had to do as a student," she says, throwing her head back with a laugh.
Convention has never been her strong suit.
For six years, she shaved her head as part of an exploration about society's and her own views on beauty.
Asked why, she laughs again, exclaiming, "I have issues, Sarah! We all have issues! I had this ugly-duckling syndrome when I was growing up. I had to purge it. I shaved my head because I had to strip down. Being bald is intense. People make all these assumptions about you, about your sexuality, your health, and it's different how you are treated. But I realized that people see what you emanate, both physically and spiritually, and I needed to grasp that."
Her decision to have a child on her own was also frowned upon. "People said, 'Oh, your career is taking off. You'll be limited.' But it's completely the opposite," she says. "My son has made me into the woman I am becoming."
Young.anitafrika is interested in evolution. She is all about becoming. Her work has helped change her, but she looks for other ways to shed the past.
I ask if she has undergone any other personal rituals of exorcism, similar to her years of baldness. She laughs and swivels in her chair to show me her back. A large tattoo of a thick snake runs from her shoulders all the way to her buttocks. "It's part of my rebirth as a woman," she tells me, turning serious again. "Every seven years, cells change. I had this done just before my 28th birthday. It marks a new cycle of my humanity."
She laughs loudly again, slapping the table lightly with the palm of one hand. "Look," she says, "This idea that if you're political you have to be a certain way is not right." She grimaces, waving a hand in the air to dismiss any notion of doing what society dictates. "You have to enjoy your work. You have to have fun."
She draws a deep breath and looks out at the street. "On a daily basis, I think there's so much to be angry about," she says, apropos of nothing. Like what? "A look, a negation of some sort," she offers. A racial thing? "Or, you know, just my nose ring. Oh, people have trouble with this nose ring, Sarah!" she hoots. And so why did she put it in? "Because," she says with childlike exuberance, surprised I would even ask. "It's really, really beautiful."
blood.claat opens at Theatre Passe Muraille on Aug. 29 and runs until Sept. 10 (416-504-7529).