One-person emancipation proclamation
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Our Fathers, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers: it’s a long title because it’s a long story, and to explain it in full would take Makambe K. Simamba far longer than one hour.
But that is how long she has before the Zoom call ends.
The Zambian-born, Toronto-based Simamba, 32, has spent a lot of time thinking about that title, and the human lives its words summarize in a single line. On her website, the acclaimed performer-playwright — Our Fathers… won the 2019 Dora Award for outstanding new play — lists three core principles: to create from a place of intention, to honour her full heritage and spiritual intelligence, and finally, to tell the truth.
The Free Press caught up with Simamba to talk about her one-person show, on until Feb. 19 at Prairie Theatre Exchange. The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
WFP: You list on your website three core principles. Did you arrive at those recently, or were they established at the very beginning of your career?
MKS: I think it was a couple of years ago when I started thinking in this direction, when I felt really serious about being an artist. I had just graduated, and there was so much negativity and naysaying, including some from the institution. Teachers kinda be like, “It’s going to be hard! You’re going to suffer! You’re only going to eat ramen!” And I understand. That’s not information that’s coming out of nowhere. It can be tough to make it. However, I didn’t feel poised for success in the same way as I felt poised for (challenges). And I was like, actually, maybe I could be awesome at this. So I just decided no matter what, I’m going to make this work for myself. I know this is what I’m meant to do, and I’m going to just do it.
Honest answer, I used to watch a lot of Oprah, and she would talk about the idea of service. And she’d interview these incredible people helping the world. And I was like, “Well, damn. I only like dressing up and telling stories. How will that help?” I just find it so clarifying and grounding to have a constant investigation throughout an arts practice.
WFP: You mentioned dressing up. Your show A Chitenge Story was centred around a piece of clothing, or fabric: the chitenge.
MKS: Absolutely. It’s an autobiographical piece told through dialogue and movement chronicling a journey of my healing from sexual abuse. For me, there’s nothing that symbolizes my Zambian culture more than a chitenge. That piece of fabric is such a staple for life, specifically for women. It’s a head wrap, it’s dresses, it’s the sling you carry your baby with. I loved that it was such a metaphor for life.
WFP: Like Our Fathers, it was also a one-person show.
MKS: The reason I made it that way is because I had written a different piece called Mud, which was a four-person show, but it required three Black actors and one white actor in Lethbridge (Alta.). So we had trouble casting the play. It wasn’t the situation I wanted to be in, but at the University of Lethbridge I had great mentors who suggested a solo show. It was really important for me to own and explore my heritage. This gentle exploration led to something that has become so core to my practice.
WFP: This latest work is somewhat centred on a different piece of clothing — the hoodie, which depending on who is wearing it, is seen very differently. Was that parallel drawn intentionally?
MKS: It was, but what I’m exploring right now is having an impulse and trusting it without explaining it. Because the piece is so heavily influenced by the life and death of Trayvon Martin, there was a huge conversation about how he was wearing a hoodie (when he was shot and killed by George Zimmerman) and how that implied he was dangerous. It feels wild to be like, “I want to reclaim the hoodie,” but I wanted to try to reclaim it for his sake and ours.
Whenever I make a piece of theatre, I always pick a particular person or group of people I’m speaking to. For Chitenge, that was millennial African women. With this show, I wanted to speak to 17-year-old Black youth. I wanted the character to tell his own story to people his own age first. In a lot of traditional theatre spaces, Black folks don’t feel welcome or see themselves represented and might feel pressured to dress a particular way. I loved that (the hoodie) represented a sense of being casual that feels recognizable to young people.
That’s so intentional in terms of the ways the character speaks and I speak about the show, all the choices I made. Even the choice I made in pre-show music. It’s for who it’s for, and if you’re not of that community and you’re coming through as an ally, just know that it’s for who it’s for first.
WFP: What’s the pre-show music?
MKS: When you come in, you hear (2010s hip-hop) playing, and that’s a very particular reference that does something to your brain.
WFP: It reminds me of being a teenage boy. You play one here, named Slimm. Is it a challenge to play a role aligned with a different gender?
MKS: It wasn’t something I really planned. I just had an impulse that it was how it was meant to happen. I had been thinking about this piece since 2012, but I wasn’t mature or skilled enough then as a writer to execute it in the way it deserves… (A big breakup) happened, and then my cousin, her name is Tanya, passed away tragically in a car accident. So I was thinking a lot about the afterlife…. If I hadn’t been in that super raw space, I would have censored myself somehow. But there was something about being in that place… So I was just like, ‘I’m going to play a boy.’”
WFP: And that relates to the title?
MKS: It acknowledges my cis-gender-femaleness in terms of the way I think about the males in my life. So I was thinking about the concerns that I have for my father, my uncles, my brother, for my potential future sons.
WFP: A core message it would seem is that we have to protect the preciousness and joy of youth.
MKS: Yes. One of my biggest motivations (here) is to remind folks that these people are people. And that reminder is not just for the people who are not onside. I don’t mess with them. I have so many better things to do than to sit here and convince you that my life matters. If you don’t think that, that’s between you and your god. I’m sorry that you’re garbage. I’m sorry that you don’t think we all deserve the same stuff. It’s not my intention to speak to people who don’t want to be spoken to … It’s just a reminder that these people we talk about who pass away in these awful situations have three-dimensional lives. Imagine living a full, beautiful, extraordinary, ordinary life and you’re only remembered for the worst part of it, which is how you died. It makes me sad that I don’t know what George Floyd’s favourite basketball team was, or what his favourite colour was, or which song he listened to when he needed to calm down.
But I saw the worst moment of his life… We’re not going to get all those details, but I think it’s important to intentionally hold the space for the sake of the spirit itself… When I think of these lynchings and murders, it was a certain amount of minutes or a moment, but there were so many other moments. There’s something that feels healthy about balancing knowledge of that energetically as we continue to have these conversations about justice.
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Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.