It is past midnight and my friend has just landed from a trip abroad and, being the hotfoot that she is, she insists we go. We arrive well after one in the morning and the place is packed. The deejay has the living room dancing and the table in the corner is topped with empty trays, an ode to cooked food now gone. On the wall near the front door there is a floor-to-ceiling grid of polaroid portraits: d’bi.young anitafrika, Measha Brueggergosman, trey anthony, Charles Officer, Ngozi Paul, Nation Cheong, Abena Malika, Sophia Walker, and the list went on and on and on so well. Inside the jam, the air is hot and the lights are dim.
The kitchen is filled with empty glasses and half-full bottles and loose voices and women who don’t live there keeping it tidy, keeping it moving. Suddenly, the music cuts out and drumming begins. A crew of percussionists enter the dance floor and a circle of space forms in front of them. A brown-skinned woman in all yellow, with curls tossed atop her head like a pile of clipped roses, answers their call. She enters the ring, shoulders pulsing, knees bent, hips living in the belly of the beat. She smiles and it’s immediately obvious: she’s really pretty. Then she laughs at herself shyly and disappears back into the crowd. The dance floor swallows the drummers, bodies glistening, spirit caught. The woman in yellow is Weyni Mengesha. This is her house, and inside it, the people are free.
That’s how I first met Weyni. She used to throw these legendary parties called Sweet Sundays at her house in Toronto’s east end. Potlucks and poets and politicking. Drummers and deejays and dancing. The cousins, the grown folks, the good food, the good people, with the black arts community representing its core. A place to come together, with a common consciousness, to connect and to rejoice.
“Weyni is a magnet,” says longtime friend and fellow director Charles Officer. “She makes it about everyone else.”
The evidence is in the listening. Where most people listen only long enough to inspire and prepare a performance of their own, Weyni actually listens. When you speak, she follows your words like a map, as though she expects you to be profound, as though she believes that the next word you say might hold the key to an elusive treasure. It’s like she’s perched at the edge of herself, focus fixed outward, forward, searching for the answer to some great wonder she has.
I asked her to meet me for an interview on the patio of Caffe Furbo in the Distillery District. As soon as I got there, I discovered that I had (so unprofessionally) forgotten my phone. This was my first interview of this kind and I felt embarrassed. “Good thing it’s just me,” she said when she arrived. She pulled out her phone to record the interview on my behalf, which she later emailed to me. The iPhone looked big and somewhat unfamiliar in her hands. I started to ask her my questions, which felt messy and maybe inadequate. She encouraged me, saying how I at least looked like a journalist (I carried a clipboard on which I wrote nothing), and centred her keen attention on my meandering line of questioning. That quality of regard was unfamiliar and became a bit daunting as I started to get nervous that I might be disappointing her high expectations of me. But every time I felt I was dropping off, she picked up my fumbling intent and carried it forward, filling in blanks, making it mean something to her and responding accordingly.
Weyni directed me in 2010 in my first stage play, a remount of her award-winning production of A Raisin in the Sun at Soulpepper, and, to this day, no director has ever been tougher. I knew she was taking a chance on a “green” newcomer like me, so I was off-book before rehearsals began (at her recommendation), would sit through everyone’s rehearsals, memorized the entire play, and still the notes were relentless in both their consistency and precision. At the time, I didn’t understand why she was being so hard on me in particular but, in retrospect, I think she was preparing me for the world of theatre much like my mother prepared me for the world at large, within the reality all people of colour know well: that if you want to make it, you’re going to have to work twice as hard. On opening night, both in our dresses and heels, I remember her taking my hand and looking into my eyes. “That’s it. You did it.” And I knew she meant it.
“Weyni has always been the truth,” Officer says to me over the phone. He played my character Beneatha’s brother, Walter Younger, in both productions of Raisin. “She’s the best director in the country—in the world! I’m so proud of her.”
Thrust into the big leagues straight out of York University’s director program with the successes of trey anthony’s da kink in my hair and d’bi young anitafrika’s blood claat, the professional opportunities that take most artists years to access came in the earliest days of her career and she soon found her name appearing on award nomination lists alongside colleagues with sometimes decades more experience. Weyni came into the game strong, and has stayed dependably so. She’s one of our country’s most trusted directors, consistently mounting and remounting productions with all the major players, from Mirvish to the Stratford Festival. Still, her passion for new works keeps her involved in fertile circuits like SummerWorks and Fringe.
“I love development,” she beams. “Developing ideas, developing a story, creating the arc of the story, that’s my favourite thing. I love it.” She’s not reliant on grants either and has never applied for one. “The way I’ve developed my work is through festivals. No money— put up shows, put up ideas. And they get picked up.” They do. She’s already led two shows (da kink in my hair and Kim’s Convenience) from the Fringe Festival to multiple remounts, international tours, and national television series, which also set precedents in cultural representation. I try to get her to brag about this but she won’t. “I’m proud of the work we’ve done but I also think it speaks to the kind of work Canada wants to see, that Canada is missing.”
That is part of what distinguishes Weyni from many of her peers: the way she holds open doors, always looking around to see who’s there and waving for us to come along, come through. Whether entirely of her own volition, or because she’s a black woman and therefore automatically responsible for and called upon to tackle theatre’s diversity problem, Weyni brings her broad imagination and thorough investigation to all of her productions, claiming territory in historically non-inclusive environments, and proving, with consistent triumph, the relevance of the great Other. And she does so by believing in her audiences, as much as herself.
“People want authenticity, that’s what they want. Yeah, you can try to fit yourself into their mould, but then— they want to grow too. And that’s been my thing, my fight— to stay true to myself. Audiences respond when I stay true to myself, not when I compromise.”
As an award-winning, highly acclaimed director, dramaturg, and composer, Weyni is obviously wickedly smart. That’s what people say most about her, when you ask what she’s like to work with: “She’s smart. She’s reeeally smart.” Of course she’s smart, but there’s something else there too, in her approach to story, that pushes her investigation beyond dry information into a more magical realm.
Shortly after our first interview, I binge-watched the Netflix series Stranger Things. The story follows an AV club–belonging, Dungeons and Dragons–playing group of kids as they go on a mission to save their missing friend Will from a monster in an upside down dimension, and something about them reminded me of Weyni. Their bravery, their resourcefulness, their determination. When they declare, “We’ve got to save Will!” you know they mean it. It’s that expression of belief, with sincerity and conviction, in one’s ability to defy the odds and achieve the goal. Weyni has an earnestness about her that I find really refreshing in this self-involved world. She never seems distracted by her ego, something that wouldn’t be out of the ordinary for someone who has experienced her type of success. I mean, she’s barely even on social media. She’s focused with wide-eyed possibility on the mission, the story, the soul. She knows she can slay the monster, and so she diligently goes about doing just that.
And then, in a flash, her vibe changes. She smiles, and her whole face transforms into a warm invitation to tea. Her eyes crinkle at the sides and become soft and welcoming and so, so beautiful. In an instant, she goes from bold and determined nerd kid in an 80s sci-fi show plotting a mission in the basement, to a wise Ethiopian grandmother who only wants to feed you and see you grow up strong and healthy. It’s all in her eyes, these two round globes that see everything. Like two flashlights, searching, lighting the way through the dark.
As a mother of two young boys, with a family life split between Toronto and Los Angeles, Weyni’s productivity is remarkable. She recently made her American directorial debut with the world premiere of Idris Goodwin’s Bars and Measures and was applauded by the Los Angeles Times for her “provocative and stylish staging.” This year she had a touring production of the unstoppable Kim’s Convenience; a Mirvish-produced remount of her successful production of Butcher (for which she earned her first Dora Mavor Moore Award for Best Direction), and she’s currently making her New York directorial debut with Martin Zimmerman’s Seven Spots on the Sun at the Rattlestick Playwrights Theatre. Weyni has even found time to expand into the realm of the camera, taking a director’s seat behind the lens for the award-winning webseries LA’d. With her husband, actor Eion Bailey, she also edited and co-directed Hero.Traitor.Patriot, a short film which explores the real-life actions of three American whistleblowers and meditates the notion of risk and personal sacrifice in order to affect meaningful change.
And when storytellers choose to shine their spotlight on hidden or ignored or silenced truths, they become a kind of whistleblower of the human experience, and the effect can be truly emancipating. Last summer Weyni invited me to a rehearsal for her powerful production of Suzan-Lori Parks’ poetic Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts I, II, III) at Soulpepper. I sat in one of the seats that were soon to be filled and looked ahead: the stage, a ripple of earth that became the battlefield, the cotton field, the front porch, the every place on which black people gather to sing their songs. “I like what you two are cooking up there. I like what you’re cooking,” Weyni says from the front row. She’s talking to Lisa Berry and Daren A. Herbert as they go back on a moment in a scene where Lisa’s character, Penny, turns and walks onto a hill and tells the audience, in direct address, about how she has to be strong right now, how she can’t cry yet, and I start to think about the demands of being a strong black woman and how Weyni always seems so resilient to me. As they’re going back on this moment, musician Divine Brown is stage left with a guitar and they’re working out the timing of the score. The other actors, the chorus, are sitting on the set, which now somehow seems endless, and they look as though they’re scattered across a barren field in a timeless space. And they keep going back on it, to find it, to get it, to mark it. In so many of the rooms I work in and attend and perform to in theatre, the melanin is scarce. But in that room, I was enveloped by a blackness that was central; taking up a space and filling it with an unbounded and exquisite humanity that is too often curtailed. And suddenly, I’m crying.
Later that afternoon, she offered me her coffee break in case I had more questions, but I couldn’t think of any. So we sat there, in the open air, with long washes of silence between us that somehow felt okay because we were both thinking. I looked at her across the table, dwarfed by her enormous spiralized salad, and she seemed so small and curious. She never mentions or alludes to it, so I asked her: Aren’t you exhausted? Her eyes lit up like someone about to kick it into high gear. “Yeah,” she said between bites, “but I’m obsessed with this stuff.” Then the stage manager called everyone back and she gathered her large bags to head into the theatre. I gave her a hug and thanked her again, for taking the time out of her very busy schedule to be with me. “Of course,” she said casually, as though it’s the surest thing in the world. “We have to tell our stories about us.”