To celebrate the launch of Room 41.2 Changing Language, we would like to share the portion of the BackRoom and RoomMate interviews that didn't make it to print. First up, it's Nav Nagra's interview with Dainty Smith, whose work we discovered on Instagram last year.
Dainty Smith is a Toronto-based actor, burlesque performer, playwright, producer, speaker and the founder of Les Femme Fatales: Women of Colour Burlesque Troupe. Dainty’s work and performances centre around stories regarding race, religion, sexuality, and challenging social boundaries.
ROOM: How does your work as a playwright and burlesque performer work/mold together?
DS: I tried to compartmentalize, at first. Dainty Smith the serious artist over here and the showgirl over here. I thought that was the way to be legitimate. Though, I found that I really needed all of myself and to be my whole and full self to tell the stories I want to tell. They feed off of each other—being a burlesque performer really informs how I write scenes. I think about the audience, set, and presentation. It's a weird, unlikely balance but they fit well together.
ROOM: You use storytelling and performance to hit on interesting topics such as race, religion, and sexuality. What is important to you for bringing those subjects to the stage? Are you aware when doing this or is it just you can't help yourself as an artist?
DS: I'm definitely aware of the stories I'm telling. I also can't help myself. I sometimes think about why can't I be the ‘fun’ showgirl and be like other showgirls and do these fun shows but I think it's believing and trusting in your own voice and vision. For me, I'm obsessed with what it means to be a proper black woman and creating my own God and possessing that inner self belief and self-love and God-ness. I want to do that without apologies. I don't know how to tell those stories without telling them involving race, religion, and sexuality.
ROOM: You give talks on glamour, beauty, self-care, and self-love as revolutionary acts. Can you tell me more about this?
DS: So, there's a thing I've been saying for a couple years and people thought I was joking at first, it was “red lipstick saves lives” and people thought I was being cute about it and adorable, but I truly believe that glamour is lifesaving. I think that particularly and especially whenever we’re talking about black women, queer women, disabled women, the underlying theme is desirability. I think that it's non-negotiable and completely revolutionary for a black woman to love herself. It was a way for me to save my own life, I grew up in a small white town. I still remember putting on my first shade of red lipstick, it felt so powerful and I understood what it meant because I had “big lips” and what it meant to be different or othered and to celebrate that difference. It meant something to think of myself as a pretty black woman. I do think it's worth it to see yourself that way and it saved my life and mind. It affects you mental wellbeing to love yourself and see yourself as lovable and worthy.
ROOM: Who are your influences?
For writers, I love Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. They had such an unapologetic way about them. For performers, Josephine Baker is the patron saint for all black performers or certainly is a major influence for most of us. Also, Eartha Kitt as well. The thing that happens is, we get erased from history, but we were there, we've always been there. Lottie “The Body” was just incredible! But I didn't know about her until long after I found Josephine Baker. That we have to dig and search hard, that these names don't just pop up right away is so frustrating. But If I need to go find my own heroes that I know that will be good for my soul, then that's what I will do. And really, it's what most of us do. We look and look again, we go searching for historical and present-day proof, for answers and reflection.
ROOM: What do you think the Canadian performance scene is lacking?
DS: First thing, it would be great if we could stop trying to be like Americans. And for more diversity and I sort of get irritated when people act like diversity was recently discovered because we have always looked like this and Canada has always looked like this for a long time. You can see proof of that simply by we way that people talk and use and shape language, from the different slang, words, and terms that we use, we are pulling from different cultures, and superstitious and gods and we bring it with it us when we come here, when our parents and grandparents came here. Instead of continuing to talk about it, it would be great to have it in all aspects of the arts—behind the scenes and in front of the screens. Instead of talking about diversity as something new, we should just acknowledge that we have looked like this for a long time and passionately and actively do something about it.
ROOM: What makes you excited then about Canada's performance scene?
DS: I am excited for the art that is happening in Canada right now. I find it really encouraging. Someone said there is a black Renaissance going on and that is so exciting. I'm looking forward to seeing more and more of the diverse voices coming out from POC and the black community. I like that it is happening and that we are doing the work to tell our stories.
You can read the rest of our interview with Dainty Smith on the last page of 41.2. Burlesque photo taken by Kidd Gloves.
Nav Nagra is an editorial board member at Room. She most recently edited issue 40.3 “Migration.”