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TO Live and Soulpepper Theatre Company’s new production retains play’s legacy, meaning and its ongoing journey

From left to right: d’bi.young anitafrika, Ordena Stephens-Thompson, Weyni Mengesha and Oluniké Adeliyi pose for a group portrait at Soulpepper Theatre on Nov. 18, 2022. Photography by Duane Cole/The Globe and Mail

Celebrating its 20th anniversary, the formative fixture of Black Canadian theatre returns to its roots with both fresh and familiar faces.

‘da Kink in My Hair, created by Trey Anthony and set in Toronto’s Caribbean-Canadian community of Eglinton West, focuses on the powerful and uplifting women that visit Novelette’s hair salon. The salon provides the perfect environment for these women to openly regale us with the deeply personal stories that have made up their lives. Though hairstyles and personalities vary, common strands remain that braid their experiences together – not only on stage but through the audience as well.

From left to right: Chelsea Russell, Tiffany Deriveau, Tamara Brown and Alana Bridgewater rehearse a song from ‘da Kink in My Hair at Soulpepper Theatre.

From Dec. 6 to Dec. 23, TO Live and Soulpepper Theatre Company will stage a new production of Letty’s salon directed by Soulpepper’s artistic director, Weyni Mengesha, who directed the first full production in 2003.

During rehearsals, Weyni Mengesha, original actresses Ordena Stephens-Thompson (who stars for the first time as Novelette), d’bi.young anitafrika (returning as Stacey-Anne) and newcomer Oluniké Adeliyi (who plays the two characters of Grace and Nia) spoke with The Globe and Mail about ‘da Kink in My Hair’s legacy, its deeply personal meaning, and its ongoing journey.


WEYNI MENGESHA

Soulpepper Theatre’s artistic director Weyni Mengesha.

We want to share the story with a new generation. The world is different. In the last two, three years, there’s been a wider acknowledgment of anti-Black racism and there’s now this openness to reflect on how far we’ve come and how far we still need to go. I also think that plays featuring Black women, Canadian Black women specifically, are still not playing at our largest theatres and across the country, and it’s important to inspire the next generation to be able to see themselves in this field and on stage in this way.

We really set ‘da Kink on Eglinton West. We worked with seven store owners, and their storefronts are actually being featured on stage. A lot of things have shifted on Eglinton West and I wanted to do this piece because, to me, it’s a celebration of the preservation of people, culture and place. Little Jamaica has survived and is still fighting to be recognized, not unlike the women that are fighting to be recognized and valued in the city as a whole.

My love for my hair has only continued to grow over the years. I’ve been able to understand it more. When I was growing up, I didn’t know what strand my hair was. Now Black women know “I’m a 3C” – we didn’t have that information then. [My hair has gone] on many journeys. I had dreadlocks for seven years while I was doing the first production, and then the last production of the play I did in London, at the end of it one of the actors in my cast [Amina Alfred] cut my locks after a show. Our hair often has real memories about where we were at in life. … I’ve gone on many journeys and through different styles, all of them beautiful.

d’bi.young anitafrika

d’bi.young anitafrika plays Stacey-Anne in ‘da Kink in My Hair.

Stacey-Anne is the “she-ro” role of my career. When I played Stacey-Anne the first time, she was raw in my body, and she triggered me so much because I’m also a survivor of childhood sexual assault. The role was the entry point to a deep and profound healing that would end up happening over a period of 20 years. Now I’m 20 years older and in a very different spiritual and emotional place in my body. So to approach the character from this side of healing, I don’t even have the words yet.

There are so many things that I hope people take away from the show. One is to participate in a storytelling ritual that captivates you and entertains you. When I see a story, I want it to pull me in emotionally, spiritually. I want it to fill all of my veins and my blood and my atoms, my bones. And it doesn’t end when the show ends. We take all of the transformations that we’re experiencing in the theatre out into the streets, into our homes. We have those difficult conversations about shade, size, race, gender and sexuality.

Hair, being such a fundamental part of our body, it’s globally that space where we express culture, where we express our uniqueness. Hair has experienced incredible trauma and oppression as well. When I was 15, I cut all of my hair off and that was the beginning of a new journey for me, exploring hair from an African, grounded place, embracing my natural hair and being able to do many things with it, including braiding, shaving, locking, plaiting and twisting. Hair is that magical force of all possibilities.

From left to right: Shakura Dickson, Miranda Edwards, Oluniké Adeliyi, Chelsea Russell, Tiffany Deriveau, Tamara Brown, Satori Shakoor and Alana Bridgewater in rehearsal.
Ordena Stephens-Thompson, left, rehearses a scene with Oluniké Adeliyi.
d’bi.young anitafrika rehearses a scene from ‘da Kink in My Hair at Soulpepper Theatre.

ORDENA STEPHENS-THOMPSON

Ordena Stephens-Thompson plays Novelette in ‘da Kink in My Hair.

In the original production, I played the role of Sister Patsy, but I always wanted to play Novelette. She is the person who allows for the characters to express themselves and heal. In the past, I only played her on TV. On stage you have to be bigger: with your eyes, your expression, your gestures, your voice. Everything has to be larger than life. When it was offered to me, I jumped at the opportunity.

When I came to Canada and I was introduced to a different society, I’d love when my mother straightened my hair, and I relaxed my hair for years. It looked like Caucasian hair. I was always trying to fit into that groove. It wasn’t until after the first time I played Sister Patsy on stage, d’bi.young shaved my head, and I cried. I cried because I could see myself. I could see my features, I could see me. And it was freeing, scary but freeing. I felt that I couldn’t be perceived any other way than as a Black woman. Not a Black woman trying to be anything else. I’ve never gone back [to relaxed hair] since.

OLUNIKÉ ADELIYI

Oluniké Adeliyi plays two roles – Grace and Nia – in ‘da Kink in My Hair.

This play is so iconic, it even reached me in New York. When I was in theatre school, an African-American professor introduced me to the play, so when I came back to Toronto, I looked for Trey Anthony. Now, I get to be a part of something that’s solidly already there and has such a big impact on the Black community, but also bring something new to it.

My relationship with my hair, it’s taken on many different journeys. When I entered theatre school, I cut all of my hair off. For me, in order to find out who I was, I had to go back to my natural state. But I still also get to wear some really great wigs too [laughs]. The significance of Black hair to me is we see it as our crown. To think that cornrows in our hair were used as maps of escape routes during slavery, and our hair was used to hide rice for food while we were journeying and escaping and trying to find a new world – it has a lot of significance. But what Black hair means to me, it means my identity. Whether it’s bald (which I have been), or having the afro that I have now – it’s the centrepiece. You get to see that heritage through my hair.

These interviews have been edited and condensed.