By Shannon Clarke
Photos by Shannon Clarke
It’s almost 30°C on a Thursday night and eight rows of chairs are fit neatly in the Toronto Women’s Bookstore. With the soft lights, bar, open doors of the back patio and easy conversation, it feels like a monthly book club meeting in someone’s living room – in a way it is. Surrounded by shelves of books and Anne Taintor magnets, guests sit shoulder-to-shoulder facing two stools set up for an evening Q&A with Trey Anthony.
Anthony arrives right on time. Making her way to the front in a T-shirt and jeans she looks around the room and with a bright smile says: “I see many familiar faces. It’s like a family here!” With that, the room completely relaxes, as if catching up with a former college roommate or high school buddy. Among the fans and complete strangers sit some of Anthony’s friends, family, acquaintances and former cast mates.
The playwright was invited to the Toronto Women’s Bookstore on July 14 to discuss the return of her play ‘da Kink in My Hair to Toronto’s Enwave Theatre this summer. Set in a West Indian hair salon in Toronto, the play focuses on six women sharing their stories on love, sexism, sexuality, racism, shadeism, and a broad range of issues women can relate to. ‘da Kink debuted at the Toronto Fringe festival and has since run in New York, San Diego, North Carolina, London, England, and Mirvish Princess of Wales Theatre, the first Canadian play to run there.
It was adapted for television in 2007 and aired for two seasons on Global TV. Anthony, who played Joy Campbell for 26 episodes, is the first black Canadian woman to write and produce her own television show. ‘da Kink no longer airs in Canada but was picked up in South Africa and Jamaica (although the latter will not air any episodes dealing with homosexuality).
For all of its applicability and global success, the play has been a deeply personal project for Anthony who says it saved her life when she wrote it ten years ago.
I really wrote the play for myself,” said Anthony “I was an overweight, struggling actor and I trying to go out for roles. The roles I was getting were very stereotypical.”
Fed up with playing crack heads, black girls on welfare and baby mamas, she decided to write her own play and create more dimensional, layered roles and characters for women of colour.
I thought if this is what people are writing for me, I’ve might have to start writing for myself.”
Anthony drew on personal experience when writing the monologues for the play. “Too Black to Wear Red” for example, was inspired by her own feelings growing up about her skin tone, when her grandmother told her she wasn’t light enough to pull off red clothing.
Audiences, friends and even family have criticized the play for not being completely representative to which Anthony has always responded: “Write your own play” (which her brother, Darren Anthony did with Secrets of a Black Boy. It debuted in 2009 in Toronto and was produced by Trey).
A teacher of creative writing, she tells her students to be completely honest in their work. It’s a principle that guides everything she does and influences every creative decision she makes. Self-producing allowed her to take control of her own work, something she says is especially important for women trying to tell their stories the way they want. When the London theatre asked her if she could move the hair salon from Eglinton Avenue in Toronto to a salon in England, she refused.
I felt really compelled as a Canadian to say no,” she said, adding “I wrote it as a black Canadian.”
Despite her Canuck pride, Anthony is now based in Atlanta, Georgia a difficult decision she says, influenced partly by her dislike for Canadian winters and city life, but also by the feeling that she’d hit a creative wall.
I felt there was very little room for me to grow and do what I needed to do,” she explained.
In Atlanta, Anthony found a more active theatre life and more respect as an artist, whereas in Canada she felt she needed to justify the relevance of her work and its “cross over appeal”. But the greatest difference between the two cities was the (regular) presence of black people on television, in ads and present in positions of power all across Atlanta.
She says, of Canada: “For a place that is so diverse we don’t see it in the mainstream media.”
Despite this (or maybe, because of this) Anthony is excited to see the play return to Toronto and to be able to support independent businesses like the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.
When you’re an independent businesswoman you need the support of your community,” she said “If you weren’t going to spend the $10 to get in then let’s spend it here in the bookstore.”
da Kink in my Hair returns to Toronto August 11 to 21.