Stage Door Review 2022

’da Kink in My Hair

Friday, December 16, 2022


by Trey Anthony, directed by Weyni Mengesha

Soulpepper & TOLive, Bluma Appel Theatre, Toronto

December 9-23, 2022

Novelette: “Love the kink”

In 2005 Trey Anthony’s first play ‘da Kink in My Hair had the honour of being the first Canadian play presented at the new 2000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre. Weyni Mengesha, who directed the 2003 Theatre Passe Muraille version, reimagined the play to suit a much larger space, but ultimately, while the stories of the play shone bright, the space it had to fill was too large for so intimate a play. Now, for the play’s 20th anniversary Soulpepper and TO Live have joined to present a new production of ‘da Kink in the 867-seat Bluma Appel Theatre of the St. Lawrence Centre. In the new venue the fit is ideal and Anthony’s play is able to generate more impact that it could in 2005.

The play is set in a hair salon in a Caribbean neighbourhood in Toronto. Unlike the abstract background it had in 2005, the play now has detailed realistic set designed by Joanna Yu. Yu paces the single styling chair on a dais so that when sitting in it the occupant becomes a kind of queen for the hour.

Ministering the occupant’s needs as both stylist and therapist is the genial Novelette (Ordena Stephens-Thompson), who believes that the hair is where black women “carry everything – all our hopes, our dreams, our pain”.  In the midst of the everyday goings-on in the salon, Novelette reads the true nature of her clients. When she begins such a “reading”, the play’s naturalism melts away. Then Novelette’s client steps forward into a spotlight at the front of the stage and delivers a monologue about her life.

This happens six times – three times in Act 1, three times in Act 2. The monologues are the backbone of the otherwise plotless play. Three women who are always on stage as workers or waiting clients will change costumes and either set up the background for the monologue or sing and dance in reaction to it after the speaker is finished. Once that episode is finished the three return to their former costumes and occupations.

With these six monologues Anthony covers a wide range of Black women from rich to those of modest means, from gleeful to those in mourning. One reason why ‘da Kink is such a pioneering work in Canada is Anthony’s insistence on presenting Black Caribbean women not a a homogenous bloc but as a varied group of vibrant individuals.

The six monologues are each so powerful that they all could be included in collection of the best Canadian monologues for theatre students. If there is a flaw it is that except for the comic turn of Miss Enid, the monologues are predictably structured, with the speaker first describing an outer appearance of happiness then finally disclosing her hidden pain.

The monologue of Patsy, played by Tamara Brown sets the pattern. Designer Rachel Forbes has dressed Patsy in the most conservative style of all the women who pass through Novelette’s door. She’s a religious woman who seems to look down on those she has seldom or never seen in church. Yet, when Novelette begins to work on Patsy’s hair, Patsy steps front and centre and begins her story of how her religion has been a comfort to her. It’s been a particular comfort since her only child was killed in gunfire. Neither the gunman nor his intended victim was found. Brown is excellent in depicting this severe test of Christian belief - “How can it explain a senseless death?”

Brown’s wavering delivery as Patsy is forcing herself to speak, suggests that maintaining her faith now is a struggle. Her further struggle, now that she has found she is pregnant, is whether she is strong enough to bring another life into this world. She doesn’t want to replace her dead son in her memory and she does not want to to go through the ordeal of losing a child all over again. The social message is spoken outright – “How can we get young Black men to stop killing each other?” Brown masterfully leads the audience in a complete turnaround in its view of Patsy. When we first saw her we were ready to pigeonhole her as an unfriendly rigid woman. Once we hear her story we look at her again with eyes full of sympathy. With Patsy’s example alone, Anthony sets up the play’s caution against judging an individual according to their appearance, much less an entire people.

Next in the chair after Patsy is a local girl made good. Sharmaine, played by Shakura Dickson, is now on a television soap opera and all the women want to know what it’s like to act with such handsome leading men. Sharmaine plays along with the women’s fantasies about how glamorous her life must be, but like Patsy, Sharmaine has a secret that would totally upend the women’s perceptions of her if they knew it. Dickson’s poise sets her apart from Brown’s rigidity as Patsy and the other clients’ relaxed posture. Dickson speaks with assurance that drifts into anger when she touches on the unfairness of having to hide her secret to succeed. But, like Brown as Patsy, Dickson leaves us thinking that Sharmaine is strong enough to win others over to her side just as she has won us over.

Act 1 ends with the only outright comic story of the six. Miss Enid, a senior citizen in a floral housecoat has discovered that she lusts after her neighbour. This discovery plus the fact her neighbour reciprocates her feelings has given her a joy late in life that she never expected. Satori Shakoor is hilarious in the role. In a fantasy sequence she sheds her housecoat revealing a golden spangly one-strap dress and with a backup group a sings a song to make the rafters ring.

Act 2 begins with more general business at Novelette’s when Sherelle, a sleekly dressed businesswoman walks in and demands that Novelette make her present client wait and do her hair now because she has a business deal to close in a couple hours. Novelette doesn’t take kindly to being ordered about and the more Sherelle presses her the stonier Novelette becomes.

Sherelle thus becomes the only non-client to deliver a monologue. She is also the only one of the six whose complaints focus on her treatment by her non-Black male colleagues. When she tells them her credentials, they assume she must simply have slept with the right professors. She may perform as well or even better than her colleagues, but they never accept her as one of them even though they work for the same company. Miranda Edwards’s performance is imbued with slow-burning anger that she has to suppress to get her work done.

The next client is the teenager Stacey-Anne, a new immigrant from Jamaica. She first tells us how happy she is to live in Canada despite the cold. But soon we find that the husband of Stacey-Anne’s grandmother threatens to send her and her sister back if they don’t do everything he wants them to. d’bi.young anitafrika, who performed the role to great acclaim in 2003, returns to it again and is just as powerful in telling this tale of abuse and is just as convincing as a young woman as she was then.

The final client is Nia, who asks for an emergency hair treatment from Novelette. Novelette is on the point of refusing Nia just as she had Sherelle, but then Novelette remembers that Nia has to attend her mother’s funeral. The chorus of women who have been Enid’s backup singers, and Stacey-Anne’s schoolmates now enacts a funeral procession with soulfully sung hymns.

The irony here is that Nia hated her mother because of her mother’s preference for her sister who had a lighter skin tone. This prejudice was a taboo topic among Black writers in the US in the early 20th century because they did not want to show divisions within the Black community. Zora Neale Hurston incurred their ire when she broached the subject in her classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). It is brave therefore that Anthony should made intra-racial prejudice a prominent subject in her play. Yet, as throughout the play, Anthony doesn’t shy away from the truth in depicting all the kinds of discrimination that Black people live with. Olunike Adeliyi delivers her monologue with a glowing anger rivalling Edwards’s as Sherelle, finally expressing her outrage for being rated second-best by her own mother.

Throughout the action Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Novelette is the centre of uprightness, comfort and humour. Stephens-Thompson presents Novelette as the best of the community as a whole. Novelette’s Hair Salon is a haven for Back women to bond, to unburden themselves and to heal. Even as the play exposes the suffering of individual women it focusses on celebrating the vitality and resilience of their communal power. We have to thank Soulpepper and TO Live for reviving this groundbreaking work in what feels like its definitive production.

Christopher Hoile

Photos: Tamara Brown as Patsy and Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Novelette; Ordena Stephens-Thompson as Novelette and d’bi.young anitafrika as Stacey-Anne; Satori Shakoor as Miss Enid. © 2022 Dahlia Katz.

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