Top Image: Weyni Mengesha 2021 © Mikka Gia
By Vanessa Grant
Weyni Mengesha tells the stories we don’t often hear. As one of the first Black artistic directors of a major theatre company who’s directed hit plays like ’da Kink in my Hair and Kim’s Convenience, she’s spent her career shining the theatrical spotlight on stories by and about people of colour.
“We live in a city where we celebrate our diversity, but people don’t often get to speak openly about their lived experiences to one another,” Mengesha shared. “The theatre is a place where we get to hear each other’s secrets in the dark. There’s an intimacy to theatre that creates an ideal temporary community where we’re all together, sharing stories.”
A first-generation Canadian, Mengesha is the daughter of Ethiopian immigrants who was born in Vancouver and grew up in Scarborough. She was inspired to become an artist when she had trouble reconciling two versions of her home country: the bleak Ethiopia she saw in the news and the rich culture she experienced first through family tales and later when she travelled there in person.
“This discrepancy taught me the importance of multiple narratives. And that there’s power in story,” she explained.
This drive to share different perspectives is what motivated Mengesha to work on ’da Kink, a play by Trey Anthony set in a hair salon that tells Black women’s personal stories while shedding light on deep topics like racism, homophobia, and police profiling. From writing the lyrics and music because there was no budget to hire anyone else when they started out, to insisting Mirvish Productions give the play another shot after they’d already passed on it, Mengesha played an instrumental role in transforming ’da Kink from a one-woman show to an international hit that eventually became a TV show.
But rather than looking at ’da Kink’s success as a one-off, she insists there is strong audience demand for diverse content.
“I’ve always felt people were craving more stories from diverse voices. When people told me ‘there’s no history of audiences from these communities coming to the theatre,’ I would say ‘well, of course not, you’ve never invited them,’” Mengesha shared. “It’s like any other home—there needs to be a big enough gesture that welcomes people of colour through the doors, because we’ve felt excluded from certain cultural spaces in the past. Audiences would like to come, but we need some radical gestures to invite them in.”
Now in a leadership role at Soulpepper Theatre, Mengesha is also making sure there are diverse role models in cultural institutions—something that was lacking when she started out.
“When I auditioned for theatre school, I couldn’t find a Black Canadian monologue to use—not that one didn’t exist, but none were available in my library,” she said. “This is why I was so determined to work on ’da Kink and other Black Canadian content. Now I want to give back and make sure others feel welcome in cultural spaces. All leaders of institutions, especially in Toronto, have a responsibility to reflect the society we live in.”
With ’da Kink returning to Toronto this December for its 20th anniversary in a co-presentation by TO Live and Soulpepper, Mengesha hopes the play’s restaging sparks important conversations.
“The art doesn’t change, but hopefully we do,” Mengesha said. “It was important to us to reflect on how far we’ve come, so Trey didn’t do any rewrites to the story. I think that’s why people continue to put on classical plays for hundreds of years—it’s like a conversation with our ancestors. Hopefully, this play continues to get done and everyone can reflect on how our society has shifted and what work remains to be done.”