d’bi young anitafrika on performance, centring oneself, and storytelling

Interview by 
Nailah King

d’bi young anitafrika is reknowned globally for her performances. She is a poet and founder of the Watah Theatre located in Toronto where she teaches the Sorplusi method, a human development framework that she created. Recipient of the YWCA 2015 Woman of Distinction in the Arts, anitafrika’s art focuses on transcending cultural boundaries, challenging social norms, and inspiring r/evolution. In the following interview, anitafrika discusses diversity, performance, Sorplusi, and more. 

ROOM: You’ve performed and toured globally, of course, to great acclaim, how can Canada embrace diverse artists, writers and performers?

DYA: That’s a great question. I think there are so many layers to consider when we’re thinking about how Canada as a nation can embrace artists who represent the spectrum of humanity. I think one of the things we have to acknowledge is that the idea of Canada as a nation, in itself, that idea is so problematic, because, we still haven’t holistically reconciled the fact that there are many of us living here who are living on unceded territories, right? So the question for me becomes, how do you begin to address issues of being recognized in a nation that isn’t a nation? Or that’s like a faux nation. Or that’s like a stolen nation. Or that’s like a nation that continues to perpetuate the same oppressions that the nation is founded upon

I mean, that becomes really convoluted. So for me, as a black woman, artist, mother, who is living on unceded territory, I have to always speak the truth as I know it; which is that I am part of a system that perpetuates thievery. And one must be honest about that. So that’s one piece that I think, if we’re fighting for equality, fighting for rights, fighting for recognition, it’s crucial that we also acknowledge the ways in which we actually contribute to a system that is specifically oppressing people whose land we’re on. That’s really important. Because then I run the risk of fighting for my piece of the pie, in a pie that I have no business being a part of or consuming. 

And that’s something that I think about as I produce art and art products. I think we all have to think about that. So that’s one [way].

The other thing that comes to my mind is who are we speaking about when we talk about having access for diverse artists? One of my approaches to art making is the perpetual centring and centring of myself and the communities I belong to. So, if I am centring myself, and I am centring black women, queer-identifying people, working class people, and LGBT people, if I am centring these people primarily, then the people who I’m concerned about, and the people whose perspective I’m interested in are those people. So then the next step for me is to consider, so what is it that I want to create that centres these people. Well, I know I want to create art that centres myself and these communities that I belong to, I also want to create environments, like physical environments, that we can call maybe a theatre company or we can call an institution, or we can call a centre, whatever we call it. When I think of those things, together, it brings my focus back to those people so that the people whom I am outreaching to, the people whom I am in dialogue with, the people who I am in conversation with, are these people. That is, that’s my priority, that’s my approach.

Now I know there are other approaches that centre whiteness, white men, heterosexuality, and centre some idea of the norm, or these narratives that sit colonial oppression and imperialism at the nucleus because the nature of them says that you centre them in the dialogue. So you and I get together, two black women, we’re talking, and then we end up talking about whiteness. And we spend like the whole day talking about whiteness, how whiteness excludes us, and how whiteness does this to us, and whiteness does this that to us. Now there is definitely a need for critical thinking and critical analysis, that I can understand what are the overlapping interconnected systems of oppression that I am inevitably a part of, [and] that I inevitably perpetuate, and that I inevitably receive.

Absolutely, I’m down for that. But what I’m not down for is the way that racism and racist patriarchy has done this number on our heads, where it manages to always be at the centre of our dialogue therefore centring whiteness—and therefore centring masculinity. So that’s my second point.

My third point in relation to this idea of the work, our work, being able to be out there, being able to be accessible, I work within the length of my arms, so I’m very conscious that my ideas around success are micro, because [the] problem may be, looking the way I look, coming from where I come from, maybe I’m not going to get a million YouTube hits, let’s be real. It’s not my priority. Maybe I’m not going to get a million books sold and get all the awards that are given to whomever they’re given to. 

So my idea of success is very much influenced by those other ideas, so again, for me it becomes important to celebrate and document the work created by us who are at the centre of ourselves, which means, having a publishing house that publishes the work of the artist-in-residence at the Watah Theatre. And, letting them learn how to centre themselves. Then, this idea of “out there” shifts. And we end up actually having a different conversation. That’s my approach to getting out there. 

Now, also, I believe in globally connecting. So these sort of drawn borders, borders that were drawn by white men, I also try to work with my own concepts of what the world is. And to remember that these borders were drawn by people, and yeah we have to have passports and we have to have these things but I have tried in my own career in very simple ways, without much machinery like [a] manager and all that stuff, to go to places, to talk with people, through poetry. So, it’s not glamorous, but rather, old-school nomadic, you know, travel to the next place and talk to people and then they learn about you and you learn about them. And that’s how I’ve approached my own career, again, thinking of how do you get out, you know, how do you get out? I think there are many ways to get out where you can circumvent this sort of capitalist game of having to be out there. It’s a super long way of answering the question, but it’s such a good question [laughs].

ROOM: Well, thank you. I guess what I’m hearing, kind of, from you, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that maybe artists, performers, need to focus on, I don’t want to say creating their own narrative ’cause that’s sort of a tired trope, but definitely not being as concerned with outside recognition and instead creating their own spaces and creating their own art?

DYA: I mean, we are social beings, so outside recognition is important, but is it possible to have outside recognition from the inside? So let’s say you and I are here together. Is it possible for me to value your recognition of my art, in the same way that I have been taught to value it from some white colonial establishment? Because, this is the thing, right, we have people around us who value our work: our friends, our family, our children, our lovers. But, somewhere we learn that that’s not it. That’s not it. 

ROOM: That generally tends to manifest itself in genre policing, I’ve found. Have you found that the case particularly with performing? I find there to be, sort of, this dichotomy between performed art and written and what’s published versus what’s not. Has that been something you’ve experienced?

DYA: I feel like I’ve had lots of questions around what I consider to be dub poetry, and I say that everything I do is dub. A dub poet is creating it so what else is it going to be? If I say it’s dub and I’m a dub poet, then it’s dub, so, I think there’s a lot of policing in general, that’s a lot of policing. Oh my God, like, there is a lot of the leftist of the left of the left polices the left. Like the queerest of the queer of the queer polices the queer. Policing is one way we assert our power over each other, right? It’s the same oppressive bullshit. That’s how we assert ourselves. You’re not the feminist you said you are. You’re not the trans person you said you are. You’re not the lesbian you said you were. I mean, it’s absurd.

Sometimes it can be really difficult to understand what the difference is between critical thinking, and critical consciousness, critical questioning of each other and policing. That can be a very unclear place, so we work it out one step at a time. But yes, the genre policing is a real thing, and I think just getting back to the way we validate each other, I think we don’t validate each other. We have been taught systems where accolades and certain praises coming from a particular space is worth more than my black sister saying to me that your work is profound to me and every day it shifts my soul. I have had to teach myself how to value that over everything else. I had to learn that because that’s not what I was taught. The value of my black sister’s body, and the value of her mind and the value of her spirit, is valueless. So then, if she has an opinion or an idea, where is it going to be placed? So a part of re-centring myself, re-centring the multiple communities I’m a part of, is, retraining and reconfiguring this, this success system and understanding that we are deeply successful because we insist on being present. 

ROOM: That’s a really good point—that’s really powerful. You founded the Watah Theatre, a space for women-identified, black-identified—black-male-identified, of-colour, LGBT, First Nation artists, with a mentorship focus. Can you talk a bit about what motivated you to start the theatre?

DYA: Yeah, ever since I was a child I wanted to have a theatre. I mean, it’s really that cliché. I mean, as far back as I can remember. I grew up watching my mother as a teacher, and watching her as a performer. And I as a child I was enamoured with my mom, like, I really, I was in love with my mother for most of my life. She was just so beautiful and smart, and articulate, and magnetic, and that’s how I experienced her, as a child, to get my mother’s love, to get my mother’s attention nothing was more special it feels like, I can remember those emotions so palpably. And so, I think that has a lot to do with it. In the sense that, as human animals we emulate, that’s how we learn, and so, I emulated my mother. She taught at a school, and whenever I would go there I would watch her with the children and, and just dream about doing that. The same thing for her on stage, she’s one of the pioneer dub poets, and I would watch her and dream about doing that. So that’s the big emotional foundation of my desire to do this, like, it’s a big part of it. 

Then I think another part of it is recognizing in my own body a deep joy for mentorship, I love mentoring. It makes me feel grounded and present, and I love people: one on one, groups—I have always done that, I love that kind of interaction. I also spend an incredible amount of time by myself, at the same time, I am also deeply introverted, it’s a very strange thing. ’Cause I’m deeply introverted, I’m like an introverted extrovert. And that’s the second thing, a deep desire to mentor. 

And then the third thing is recognizing that there’s space for it, recognizing that we actually need it. So then, you put the three things together, like, my deep emotions, and my love of teaching and also, the deep desire, to give to the community in a way where it can receive and excel is amazing. I am the product of mentorship, like, I have been mentored all my life, I continue to be mentored by my elders and they cradle me, so I think part of the responsibility is to also cradle.

ROOM: Would you say that a performer is an educator?

DYA: I would say that. I mean, that’s what our African storytelling traditions tell us, is that if you think of the expanse of humanity, or what we think we know about what’s happened before we got here, this idea of telling stories in order to survive is as old as time. It’s been there before we started to orate, working with our hands, trying to protect ourselves from predators, potential predators, becoming bipedal, and then creating culture—creating culture in order to survive. So much of narrative is a survival element for humanity. It has always been that way. And it is that way today. Like we tell stories to survive, whether we’re black people trying to survive in this goddamn fascist white state that we exist in, or we’re women trying to survive patriarchy, we’re storying to survive. So, performer as educator is definitely the narrative that I choose to tell.

ROOM: In what ways does storytelling through performance help artists find or reclaim their identities?

DYA: I feel like the performer themselves, they go through, like perpetual processes of transformation. Now for the performer to go through those perpetual processes of transformation those are happening all the time. So they’re happening, before the creative piece, then they’re happening during the creation of the piece, then they’re happening during the sharing of the piece—and possibly they’re happening after the piece has been shared, so it’s like a circular system where transformation is happening all the time. Somewhere in there when the performer’s story and village meets, there’s also transformation—for the village. So, like, the whole thing is just magic, right? It’s just pure magic. 

So there is all these transformations happening and then depending on, like, the longevity of the piece, so the piece can live on as literature, it can live on as a digital piece, it can live on in people’s minds, there are multiple ways that it can live on, it continues to usher transformation—which is like I humble myself to that, ’cause I don’t know what that is, I don’t know how it works. But I know that it’s sacred.

ROOM: So I’ve read a little bit about the Sorplusi? Method—

DYA: Yeah, that’s exactly how to pronounce it, some people say “sorplussy” and I’m like [laughter].

ROOM: It’s a methodology that you created that strives to bring about self-actualization. I wanted to know a little bit about how you developed the method and what impact it’s having on your students. 

DYA: Wow, that’s a great question, so while I answer it, take a look at that—I’m so excited—check that out. So, Sorplusi, I started to develop the methodology, about twelve years ago, or maybe ten years ago, [or] maybe eight years ago. Somewhere in there. I say that because I feel like it was developing before I knew that it was developing. So, I was thinking about certain ideas like self-knowledge and certain elements that became the methodology before I knew what was upon me. You know, before I knew what the answers were like: “hey, hey, are you listening down there—or up there, or around there?” Who knows how it works. 

So, the methodology is essentially a way for us to reconnect with our deep versions of our humanity. And you decide what the deep version of your humanity is, because I can’t tell you—no one can tell you—you have to decide that for yourself. It doesn’t tell you any answers, but what it does is it provides a million questions. And just says: what about this question? And this one? Did you think about this question? You know there’s a question right here, and there’s one right here? And so, what I do, quite, simply is I guide people through a process of asking some very specific questions. So, the framework has eight principles. Each principle has a series of questions. It also has six bodies that we look at in relation to our humanity. And the bodies have specific ways that you can get into defining them, even though you’re defining them for yourself. They’re like suggestions around what you consider when, [and] what you can consider when defining them. 

And with the eight principles and six bodies, are interwoven meditation, and regression exercises, and leadership games, and theatre activities, and everything I could absorb in the last, like, thirty-seven years of my life. And put together in this framework. And it can unfold in a three-hour session. It can unfold over a weekend. It can unfold over a year. It can unfold over ten years, right? The depth to which you go is dependent on you, I’m studying it right now. I’m in my third year. And I committed to studying one principle per year. And it’s like a rabbit hole: there’s no end. And I mean it’s one system of many systems. It comes out of dub poetry. It comes out, I think, out of Buddhist thought, because that’s one of my teachers. It comes out of Daoism. It comes out of the Yoruba Ifa spiritual tradition. It comes out of the popular theatre work that I learned from my elders. It comes out of Rastifarianism. It comes out of the work that I did in Da Kink in My Hair. Comes out of the work I’ve done with the theatre—all of the theatre companies that have mentored me. So it really is a distillation. It’s interesting because, when these people see this methodology they totally don’t recognize anything in it. But, I must be truthful, the way that my mind works is like I distill information. And so, this, for me, is a distillation of everything that I’ve learnt. So in that sense it’s not original. What I’ve done is I’ve just chosen specific pieces to put together to form the method.

ROOM: And has that had a particular impact on your students? Or, do they find it to—

DYA: They keep coming back—

ROOM: [laughs] That’s good—

DYA: They keep coming back. We had like eight of them graduate from the program last year and all eight are back this year. It was supposed to be a one-year program. Now it’s a two-year program.

ROOM: I ask because it seems like a very inclusive methodology in that I find a lot of art schools tend to want to put you in categories and boxes and things of that nature—whereas your method seems to, better, let someone decide what art they want to make or what type of person they want to be.

DYA: Yeah, you get to decide, it’s your life. It’s your life, right? My issue with these other methods and ways of being, is that they tell you who to be and then they tell you if that is valuable. And that is like the most spirit killing fucked-up fuckery ever. It’s just wrong. You know, the education system was supposed to evolve out of a system of mentorship for crying out loud. How did we get from “okay I can teach you this craft and you are going to make it the way you make it when it’s your turn to make it” to  “regurgitate this material now and redo that, just be a copying machine.” Like, who the hell wants to be a copying machine?

At the Watah Theatre, one of the best testings of the method, is you have fifteen students, fifteen artists, coming from fifteen different places, they all produce one-person shows. You come to the theatre, none of the shows look the same, and they’ve all studied the same methods. And none of them certainly don’t look like the work that I do. So this idea that “oh d’bi is going to produce little versions of herself”—Tried, tested, proven. None of the work looks like my work, none of the works look like each other’s work, because the point is to develop that person’s voice. Their own voice. That’s the whole point. So I don’t understand, all I know is I just do what I hear. I’m not an academic. Like that wasn’t my path, I’m not a whatever, I’m none of those things, right? I’m average, but I have learned over the years to just listen. Listen. Like just, listen. 

ROOM: I think that’s good to point out, because a lot of these other systems tend to drown out individuality and creativity and make you scared to try other things and listen to what’s appealing to you. So you’ve had numerous students who graduated from the residency and are going on to great success, what’s the greatest lesson you’ve learned from your students?

DYA: Wow, I’ve learned so many. That’s a great question. I think the greatest one is that they are teachers. So, of all the things that have kept me in balance, I feel like the learning from the artists-in-residence is the top one. Why? Because it means that working with the artists I’m constantly having a group of creative people to mirror. They are brilliant artists. So I am fortunate to be in the company of these brilliant artists all the time. And so they teach me how to be an artist, and they teach me how to be flexible and multidimensional, and they humble me because they come with so much love and openness and trust that it has a deep impact on me. And it makes me, well, one, rise to the occasion. And it also makes me want to be the most integritous artist that I can be. Yeah, I think that that’s the number one: the learning that they teach me how to be a human being.

ROOM: That’s really powerful. You’re a multidisciplinary artist. I’ve seen that you’ve written plays, you’re an actress, you’re a poet; is there any style or genre of art you haven’t yet explored but you’d like to?

DYA: It’s interesting because I’m getting back to dance, which is like one of my loves but for many years I didn’t do it. I mean I do it in my work, but I’m talking about studying, like immersing oneself, which is a different thing for me. It’s one thing to create and have these different elements but like, like to be in it, I gave myself a ten-day dance creator’s lab because Kahawi Dance, which is a First Nations dance company down the hall, they have a four-week summer intensive, dance intensive with all these amazing mentors. But I was directing so I couldn’t do the four weeks but I’m doing ten immersive days and it’s just reminding me the dance, priorities of dance is there, it’s on the list, dance is there. 

Voice. So I started voice lessons on Sunday. And again I guess I am an orator. But I love, I love the idea of studying—but not studying in an institution. I like to study at like the foot of the elders. I’m super old school like that. So like I started voice lessons—voice and music—with Alejandro Nuñez, he’s one of my long-time mentors, on Sunday. So, I decided that these are the areas that, even though I have a little bit of know-how in them, or years of experience, there is something about going deeper that I really respect. 

And so I’m going deeper with those two. And I would love to do film. I’ve done a tiny bit of film work, but not like in the industry, through myself in that case, I have no time for that bullshit. No matter how much I want to get into film there are certain things that I’m just not going to do. But I love filmmaking. It’s a gorgeous art. So, if that came along I’d love to explore film because I’m a storyteller, and that would challenge me because it’s a different medium and it requires different things of you. And I’d love to explore that, another opportunity to learn. 

And in another lifetime, I would love to be a physicist, because that is also art. I just don’t have the time in this lifetime, I don’t think. But, it’s like also on the list: quantum physics. 

ROOM: Quantum physics, that’s fascinating. It’s complicated and it’s about the universe.

DYA: But it’s pretty artsy-fartsy, it’s borderline “ah, that’s an arts practice.”

ROOM: I’ve never viewed that as art but the more you talk about it

DYA: Well it’s an art by itself. Physicists have everybody fooled.

ROOM: What advice do you have for emerging women of colour performers, writers, and artists, because I know a lot of people are just starting up, some of who just got the courage to submit to this issue, so, what advice would you give them given you’re a successful performer yourself?

DYA: I would ask them “what does this life path mean to you? What does it mean to you to be alive, here, now?” and out of that question will come a million others that need to be explored. You simply have to explore the questions. Because when we don’t explore the questions, then what happens is we begin to eat other people’s stories. And when you eat something, it becomes your cells, it becomes your bones, it becomes your skin. And it’s a very strange place to be inhabited by like a parasite or an alien entity. So in order to circumvent that, or to extricate that kind of invasion of the body snatchers which is what imperialism and patriarchy and sexism and colonization are, you have to ask the questions. And then we have to try to answer them even though they’re difficult. And we come up with “I don’t know.” And “I don’t know” is a fine answer to come up with, it’s a great answer because it points us in the direction of humility. But still ask the question. I start with what does this life mean to me because that question points me in the direction of what I care about and what is sacred to me. How I feel about myself, how I feel about the people around me. So I love, that, that question’s a big one. But there are many that will come out of that question. Ask the questions, there is no wrong answer, there’s no easy path, so ask the questions—you have to ask yourself the questions. And you have to accept that, living is like a lifetime of asking the questions so it’s not likely to end. It’s not like I’m going to get to forty and then there will be no more questions—it doesn’t work like that. Perpetually ask the questions. 

Nailah King is a member of the Room editorial collective. She is also a writer, avid reader, and blogger living in Toronto. A UBC alumnae, she is currently working on completing a thus far untitled manuscript in prose fiction. A lover of popular culture, art and 1980s Canadian classic, Degrassi Jr. High, you can find (some of) her writing at thedistractedcurator.tumblr.com.

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