Two stories from Weyni Mengesha’s upbringing help explain how she became the storyteller she is – a Canadian theatre director whose bridge-building philosophy has led to big box-office successes like ’da Kink in My Hair and Kim’s Convenience, and an artist with unusual insight into plays about war and royal families.
The recent Dora Mavor Moore Award-winner for outstanding direction tells these stories well – as simply and captivatingly as any of her theatre productions – one sunny day, relaxing on a couch in the Soulpepper office.
That Toronto theatre company is about to open Mengesha’s production of Suzan-Lori Parks’s Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 & 3), an American Civil War epic styled after a Greek tragedy featuring a jaw-dropping concentration of black Canadian talent.
In the cast: Order of Canada member and legendary Nova Scotian actor Walter Borden; Juno-winning soul singer Divine Brown; Stratford Festival star Dion Johnstone; and Dora-winning musical theatre performer Daren A Herbert. (I could go on.)
Rehearsals for the Parks epic, a critical hit at New York’s Public Theatre two years ago, began the day after Mengesha opened her thrilling production of another multi-part, roman-numeral-littered show at the Stratford Festival – Breath of Kings: Rebellion, an abridgement of Shakespeare’s Richard II and Henry IV, Part I.
And immediately after her Soulpepper show opens, Mengehsa’s off to Pasadena, Calif., to make her American directorial debut at the Boston Court with a new show called Bars and Measures.
That’s one way to come out of maternity leave. “Two babies, three shows,” is how Mengesha summarizes her schedule this summer – the Vancouver-born, Scarborough-raised director now has both a one-year-old boy and three-year-old boy with her husband, the American actor Eion Bailey.
Having established that Mengesha is an in-demand director, to say the least, let’s get to those stories about how she became one.
The first takes place in 1986, when Mengesha was eight. One day, her teacher stood up in front her Vancouver elementary school class and said: “I think we have a princess in our class.”
Mengesha looked around for a crown, a gown, a sceptre, something – then, to her surprise, discovered her teacher was talking about her. There was an article in that day’s paper with a picture of her father, Jalye Mengesha, a great-grandson of the late overthrown emperor of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie I. He was asking the Canadian government to help secure the release from prison of his mother, Aida.
When Mengesha got home from school, she began to learn from her parents about a family history as extraordinary as any in Shakespeare – that she wasn’t a princess exactly, but might have been; that her father was sent to Canada to study, then ended up staying after a 1974 revolution back home that saw many of the men in his family executed and the women imprisoned.
Just as crucial to understanding how this revelation affected Mengesha is to realize it came the year after Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie’s charity single We Are the World came out – raising money for famine relief in Africa, at a time when many Canadian parents would get their kids to finish their vegetables by saying, “Think of the children in Ethiopia.”
A single new story and, in an instant, the little girl’s idea of herself and her background was forever altered. “I was I learning about this royal family on one side, and I was learning about this place where I was coming from where everyone was starving in the media,” Mengesha recalls. “So I’ve always been intrigued by knowing our history and being in control of the narrative that was told about us, told about me – and was told about anybody who didn’t have a voice.”
Implanted, Mengesha’s understanding of the power of narratives and the importance of countering the narrow ones in the media only grew – and informs her process today.
Walter Borden, who is playing a character called the Oldest Old Man in Father Comes Home from the Wars, recalls with astonishment what happened in the rehearsal room the day in early July that Philando Castile was fatally shot by a police officer in Minnesota – and the video his girlfriend had recorded in the aftermath went viral.
Instead of touching on the matter and moving on with the work, Mengesha encouraged the artists in the room to form a circle and talk about it for as long as they wanted.
“That was the catalyst for a happening that I’ve only ever experienced one of two times in a similar fashion in the theatre,” recalls Borden, who says it paid artistic dividends in Parks’s play that roams from a slave plantation to Civil War battlefields.
“It sent the process onto a plane that nothing else could have put it on – brought us into a laser-focus of now. … That lifted the play to another level from which it certainly hasn’t come down, but really has taken off even further.”
The news deeply affecting black lives – on both sides of the border – hasn’t stopped since. “It’s been a real honour to be in this room at this time – to be able to have the opportunity to process it with this group of artists,” says Mengesha, who recalls first questioning her safety around police as a person of colour when she was 14 and watched a friend get beat up by an undercover cop on Robson Street in Vancouver.
That’s not the second formative story. The second one begins when Mengesha was 15 and decided to move to Scarborough, Ont., to live with her dad. (Her parents had divorced, though they later got married again to each other when their daughter was 24 – another story for another time.)
In her elementary school, Mengesha had been one of just two kids of colour in her class; her high school in Kitsilano wasn’t much more diverse. So when the opportunity came to go east, she did it in part to live in one of the most multicultural cities in the world.
Her first days at Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute, however, were a disappointment for a teenager whose interest in her own culture’s stories made her interested in others’.
On Mengesha’s first day, the guidance councillor got a black student to show her around – and the student pointed out the hill where the black kids sat during lunch, the library window the Indian students sat under, where the Italian kids congregated … It was social self-segregation. But the idea that kids would, naturally, be interested in their own kind seems to have been shared by some on the staff.
Shortly after, Mengesha – whose interest in theatre as a mode of storytelling had at this point begun to bud – asked the principal if she could put on some skits about black history for Martin Luther King Day. He agreed, but Mengesha recalls what he then said next: “You don’t want to make it too long; you don’t want people to be bored.”
Right at the start of her theatre career then, Mengesha wanted to bring different people together – and though the best way would be for everyone to understand each others’ stories better. And right off the bat, she experienced skepticism from above that a general audience would want to watch stories about non-white lives for very long.
To see that that idea still exists in many professional contemporary theatres today requires only a glance at many of the upcoming seasons in Toronto – and to recall that ’da Kink in My Hair and Kim’s Convenience, the most popular Toronto plays of the 2000s and 2010s, respectively, began as self-produced Fringe Festival shows.
Mengesha became involved in the ’da Kink even before she graduated from York University’s now defunct undergraduate program in directing. She worked as a dramaturge, composer and director with the playwright and performer Trey Anthony on the play – successfully ushering it from its Fringe Festival debut in 2001 to a sold-out run at Theatre Passe Muraille in 2003 to becoming the first Canadian play to take the stage at the 2,000-seat Princess of Wales, where it was extended five times in 2005.
Along that journey, Mengesha recalls, she received frequent advice to get rid of some of the patois sections or water down the Caribbean-Canadian accents to reach a broader audience. And all the way, she and Anthony resisted.
“Instinctively, I was like: The only way this is going to appeal to everybody is if it’s very specific,” Mengesha recalls. “Whether or not you have Jamaican friends, we have such a diverse city that we can all detect authenticity.”
Mengesha is described by actors who have worked with her as the type of director who doesn’t impose a style on a show – and, despite loving her research, she likes to work in the room and solicit ideas. “One of the things I liked about her is I didn’t feel she arrived with all the answers,” says Tom Rooney, the Stratford Festival star currently playing Richard II. “I work with Chris Abraham [of Crow’s Theatre] a lot and in some ways, she’s similar; the rehearsal process is dynamic.”
What links her varied productions then? Whether she’s directing a modern British play like Duncan Macmillan’s Lungs (held over a season at Tarragon Theatre), Ins Choi’s hit comedy about a Korean-Canadian corner store, Kim’s Convenience, or Nicolas Billon’s thriller Butcher (premiered at Alberta Theatre Projects, remounted in Toronto last fall ) it’s that respect for an audience’s intuition for the authentic – and her trust in their curiosity, intelligence and empathy.
“I think audiences – we want to understand each other,” Mengesha says. “What is theatre here for, if not to create bridges and deal with the community it lives in? We’re not film – we’re doing storytelling for a particular radius of people.”
Butcher – which is the second show Mengesha has directed to be picked up for commercial production; it will be part of off-Mirvish season in March – is perhaps the latest example that not all not-for-profit theatres have the same respect of the Toronto audience.
A thriller about revenge and reconciliation and a civil war in a foreign country that comes home to roost in a Toronto police station, it immediately appealed to Mengesha when her former Soulpepper Academy colleague Billon showed it to her.
“He knew my family lived through a revolution – and that the dictator who executed many of my family members is still living comfortably in Zimbabwe,” she says. “With so many people right now fleeing from conflict on tiny boats, I feel like it’s a conversation that we need to have in a society where many refugees are coming to our country.”
But despite a successful Calgary premiere in 2014, none of the non-for-profit theatre companies in the city where Billon and Mengesha live picked it up for a second production.
In the end, Billon decided to self-produce the show in conjunction with Ravi Jain’s Why Not Theatre for a short run last fall – and the rest is history.
What does it say that so many of the most celebrated plays by Toronto playwrights this century have come out of self-producing rather than through the multiple companies dedicated to developing and premiering new work in this city?
And why isn’t Mengesha in charge of a major Toronto theatre yet with her incredible track record of picking projects that connect with a wide audience?
It’s mostly her own decision – she was associate artistic director of Theatre Passe Muraille from 2004 to 2006 but, despite encouragement, decided not to apply for the artistic director position when it came up. And she just turned down the opportunity to be one of Soulpepper’s first associate artistic directors – and join that theatre company’s potential line of succession.
She’s wanted to make own her art a priority over administration at this point in her career: “I think I’m still honing my craft.” Indeed, her story’s just beginning.