The Woyingi Blog

Black Canadian Profile: d’bi young

d’bi young is a Jamaican Canadian poet, playwright, and actor. Raised in the working class district of Whitfield, Jamaica, she is the daughter of Jamaican dub poet Anita Stewart, who gave birth to d’bi young when she was only 15. In her teens, d’bi young studied at the Jamaica School of Drama. In 1993, she immigrated to Canada, studied at McGill University in Montreal, where she got involved in the local spoken word scene. She settled in Toronto, Ontario in 2001. d’bi young self identifies as queer and has had some of her plays presented at Toronto’s Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, which is dedicated to the promotion of queer artistic expression. Now in her early thirties and a mother of two, d’bi young is an internationally recognized performance artist. She defines herself first and foremost as a storyteller.

d’bi young, who was named Debbie Young at birth, doesn’t like to use capitals for her own name and the titles of her plays, citing the influence of fellow Jamaican Canadian poet and director ahdri zhina mandiela.

d’bi.young runs her own dub theatre mentorship program, anitAFRIKA! dub theatre. In an interview with AfroToronto.com in 2009, young described her work at anitAFRIKA as follows: 

I’m working with 13 people whose ages range from 19 to 60 and basically I teach them how to write dub solo shows using these principles that I’m developing right now, and been developing for the last 3 years, called ORPLUSI princlpes of storytelling. Which are orality, rhythm, personal is political, political is personal, language, urgency, sacredness and integrity. [These are] guiding principles towards the creative process. That’s the most exciting thing for me because I’m at Guelph as well doing my Masters developing theory around oral storytelling and traditions that come out of the Afro-Caribbean Diaspora.

d'bi young, photo by Paula Wilson

d’bi.young’s style of poetry is best described as dub poetry. Dup poetry developed out of the artistic renaissance in the Jamaica of the 1970s. The term was first used to describe Jamaican disc jockeys who would sing or spout their own lyrics over “the dub versions” -instrumental remixes on the B-Sides-of reggae records. It is deeply influenced by the intonations and speech patterns of Jamaican Creole (Patwa). The dub poetry movement in Jamaica is exemplified by the work of Jamaican dub poet Oku Onuora, born Orlando Wong. Dub poetry is essentially an oral form of performance, however, it became acceptable for it to be written as well. In 1974, Onuora, who was used to performing his poems in front of crowds as opposed to writing them down, was doing time in a Jamaican prison for armed robberies (crimes he said he committed in order to finance community projects for youth in Kingston’s ghettos). His poetry and plays began to be disseminated from prison in written form. In 1979, Onuora defined dub poetry as:…a poet that has a build-in reggae rhythm -hence when the poem is read with out an reggae rhythm (so to speak) backing […] one can distinctly hear the reggae rhythm coming out of the poem.” Emerging out of the context of Black activism and Jamaican independence, Dub poetry is also a form of poetry that is to be used a tool of political activism. Dub poetry spread throughout the Jamaican diaspora, to Britain, producing celebrated poets like Linton Kwesi Johnson, and to Canada, most notably Toronto, producing such poets as Lillian Allen.

d’bi young’s work is suffused with her Jamaican heritage and African sensibility. Her performances are woman-centred and focus on the lives of Black women as they survive the traumas of magic, migration, sexual violence, childbirth, motherhood, death and rebirth. d’bi.young’s artistic influences included her mother, dub poet Anita Stewart aka Anilia Soyinka, who was a member of the pioneer dub poetry collective Poets in Unity and Mikey Smith, a famous Jamaican poet on whose life d’bi young has developed a play.

Her accomplishments as an actor:

At 13, d’bi.young was cast as Odale in a production of Kamau Braithwaite’s Odale’s Choice, an adaptation of Sophocles’ Antigone. In 2001, d’bi.young performed in South African playwright Zakes Mda’s play And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses. d’bi young performed in the 2005 production of Trey Anthony’s Da Kink in My Hair, a play that follows the lives of the hairstylists and patrons of a Caribbean Hair Salon in downtown Toronto (The play has since been developed into a TV Series on Global, in which young appeared as a spoken word artist). In ‘Da Kink, young powerfully portrays a young incest survivor. young was nominated in 2003 for two Gemini Awards for Best Individual Performance in a Comedy Series and Viewers Choice Award for Favorite Comedian for her performance as the teenaged Crystal in Lord Have Mercy!, Canada’s first Caribbean-Canadian TV sitcom. young, who helped to develop Crystal’s character, described her as follows:

Crystal has hair under her arm-pits, none on her head. She wears gender neutral clothing, and she also wears tight-up, tight-up mini…whatever. She speaks English and Jamaica’s national language fluently. She goes in and out…she’s a dub-poet. She’s extremely intelligent, selfish, and self-absorbed. She thinks she knows everything and is searching desperately for her grandmother to love her. She’s searching for herself within in the context of the church. Her granny is old-school and she’s new school. They’re actually not very different. They’re both strong-headed women.

Her accomplishments as a playwright:

d’bi young, in collaboration with fellow Black Caribbean Canadian poet Naila Belvett, co-wrote and performed in Yagayah, a two-woman play following the childhood friendship of two Jamaican girls who are separated when one immigrates to Canada. This play was published in Djanet Sears’ Testifyin’: Contemporary African Canadian Drama II. d’bi young often writes plays for solo performances. She has developed what she calls “biomyth-monodrama”. According to d’bi young, bio-myth is “a form of creation where the artist uses biographical information as a starting point and then applies poetic license to broaden or deepen it.” ‘Monodrama’ combines d’bi young’s roots in dub poetry and theatre. d’bi young has written a one-woman play entitled blood.claat, the first in the Sankofa trilogy following three generations of Jamaican women. Dramaturged and Directed by Ethiopian Canadian Weyni Mengesha, d’bi.young’s long-time collaborator and friend, the play has been performed across Canada and internationally. In blood.claat, young performs over 8 different characters. blood.claat has been published by Playwrights’ Canada Press. In 2006, the play won two Dora Mavor Moore Awards. She was artist in residence at the Soulpepper Theatre Academy. young’s most recent work is a play called She, which explores a young woman’s obsession with a pop icon, and is inspired by young’s interest in Rihanna and how her life is portrayed in the media. young often holds talk-back sessions at the end of her performances. According to young:

I’ve learned that I can’t present controversial subject matter and expect my audience to go home and be okay. There has to be a process where we can dialogue about the work. A storyteller is there first and foremost for the transformation of the community, and they must be responsible to the people who will allow them to be on stage.

Her accomplishments as a poet:

In 2003, young was voted “Best dup poet and storytelling actor” by Toronto’s NOW Magazine. She won CBC’s Poetry Face-Off 2004 Poetry Slam competition for the City of Toronto. young has produced several CDs of dub poetry. Her debut, “When the Love is Not Enough”, came out in 2000. Her second album xperimentin dub was a live jam album made in collaboration with musicians Beau Dixon and Gregory Roy’s dub trinity. Her subsequent albums include xperimentin dub Havana cuba and dubbin.revolushun: blood demo. She has collaborated with Cuba’s Paso Firme reggae band, Cuban hip hop producer Pablo Herrera, and exiled African American activist Assata Shakur. She has also appeared on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam.

d’bi.young on storytelling:

I really do believe that we’re all storytellers. I mean not everybody could do it professionally but I think that we all have a responsibility to acknowledge that we’re storytelling in whatever it is that we choose to do. The minute we acknowledge that then we can make choices around how we actually communicate with people.

d’bi.young on dub poetry:

dub is rooted in oral storytelling tradishuns that enslaved afrikan peoples brought to the Americas. the main elements of dub are 1. language 2. political content (simply meaning ‘of the people’) 3. musicality 4. orality. when I write for theatre, these are the elements that make up my foundation, therefore my work is rooted in issues that concern the many communities that I belong to as a womban, as an afrikan, a mother, as an artist, as a queer-identified person, as a working person, an able-bodied person, etc. engaging the audience is essential in communicating the story with them so it permeates the head and eventually rests in the heart, music and rhythm and humour and honesty are good for that. the elements that I use to engage the audience as a dub poet are the same elements I use to engage the audience as a playwright.

d’bi.young on Da Kink in My Hair:

During ‘Da Kink, we were reminded by older women in the community that the wheel was not being re-invented …there was a herstory long pre-dating ‘Da Kink of  black woman theatre. Because of the racism and because of the systemic discrimination and alienation in choosing what kind of herstory is preserved and presented, it seemed like we were re-inventing the wheel with ‘Da Kink. But in fact we were just building on a tradition that was already there. 

d’bi.young on her play benu:

…benu is the second of a trilogy that began with blood.claat. It looks at the daughter born at the end of the show-she’s grown up, and it starts with her having a baby of her own. I’m trying to look at three generations of women because I’m obsessed with lineage and passing on the bloodline-and what happens with each generation. It’s about death and rebirth, physically and metaphorically. The benu is the predessor of the phoenix bird, its Egyptian ancestor.

d’bi.young on what Canadian Theatre can learn from Ghanaian artists:

one of the adinkra symbols from Ghana is called sankofa, which translates to ‘return and get it’ or ‘learn from the past’. for us as Canadian theatre makers, to move into the future we must learn from the past. there are some dialogues we need to have about canada’s past that we are unwilling to have. but if we don’t have them how can we hope to do different, do better for our children’s future and the seven generashuns to come?

Personal Reflections:

I was lucky to be able to attend a performance of d’bi.young’s play blood.claat when it was staged at the Great Canadian Theatre Company in early 2010. (See The Woyingi Blogger’s Play Review of blood.claat) I attended the play with Somali-Canadian poet and playwright Habiba Ali. At the end of the performance, d’bi.young hosted a talk-back with the audience. d’bi.young’s vibrancy as well as her commitment to theatre as a form of personal exploration and healing, I found truly inspiring, and her influence has led to my own creative exploration of my identity as a Black Canadian of mixed heritage. d’bi.young’s work reminds me that our lives are stories which we are constantly telling to ourselves, our families, and our friends. d’bi.young’s work has helped me to better understand the complexities of the experiences of Jamaican Canadian women, who, as a driving force in the artistic, activist, and academic institutions of Black Canada, have played a pivotal role in the development of my identity as a Black Canadian woman.

 Further Reading:

d’bi young’s website

anitAFRIKA dub theatre’s website

Literature Alive Profile of d’bi young available online

blood.claat, a play by d’bi young available to order from Playwrights’ Canada Press

Interview (2010) with The Montreal Mirror available online

Interview (2010) with Capital Xtra available online

Interview (2009) with AfroToronto.com available online

Textualizing Dub Poetry: A Literature Review of Jamaican English from Jamaica to Toronto, an academic essay by Katherine McLeod available online

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Play Review: blood claat by d’bi.young anitafrika

Posted in Black African Diaspora Literature, Countries: Jamaica, Jamaican Literature, Plays, Reviews by the woyingi blogger on March 18, 2010

Yesterday, I went to see d’bi.young in blood claat: a one oomaan story at the Great Canadian Theatre Company. d’bi.young wrote and performs every role in the play, which is directed by Weyni Mengesha. The play follows 15 year old Mudgu Sankofa who lives in a poor neighbourhood in Kingston, Jamaica.

d'bi.young in blood claat

All the characters in the play are portrayed by d’bi.young herself. These characters range from the precocious Mudgu, her strict grandmother, her mother in Canada, her Rasta dope-dealing boyfriend Johnny, her Jesus-praising aunt, her sexually abusive uncle, a stammering bus conducter, and the legendary Queen Nanny of the Windward Maroons! To say that d’bi.young is an amazing and brillant performer is an understatement.

The play opens with a barebreasted d’bi.young portraying Queen Nanny, the former Ashanti princess who was enslaved by the British and sent to Jamaica where she soon escaped her masters and became leader of the Windward Maroons  of the Blue Mountains in the 1730s. Mudgu’s mother claims that her family is descended from Queen Nanny and therefore has a strong bloodline, strong enough to overcome any hardship.

Several images of blood interplay throughout the story, from Mudgu’s menstrual blood which stains her sheets as she sleeps, to the bloodshed resulting from gunshot wounds and machete attacks, to the blood connecting us to our ancestors, to the blood of Jesus Christ that was shed to cleanse Mankind of all sin.

I have grown up knowing that blood claat is a term of disrespect in Jamaican Patois but d’bi.young attempts to reclaim it in this piece. Mudgu’s mother explains that blood claat stands for blood cloth which is the cloth women use to absorb their menstural blood. She explains that women who practiced obeah, a Jamaican variation on the traditional religions of West Africans, would use their menstrual blood and their blood cloths in their magic in order to protect themselves or those they loved.

The play was written by d’ bi.young and is part of a planned trilogy that will follow Mudgu and her family to Canada and back to Jamaica over several decades.  She writes:

blood claat is the first story in the sankofa trilogy which charts the journey of three generations of afrikan-jamaican-becoming-afrikan-canadian womben: mudgu sankofa, her daughter sekesu sankofa, and sekesu’s daughter oya sankofa. the second play benu is about a new mother’s journey through the fire of childbirth and mother-lessness. and the third word! sound! pawah! is about familial reconciliation, forgiveness, and a mythologized revolution of dubpoetry in jamaica.

It is clear that elements of the play are autobiographical. d’bi.young herself was born in Whitfield Town in Kingston, Jamaica, where the play is set. She writes:

i am a biomyth-monodramatist. biomyth-monodrama (as i pratice it) is theatrical solo-performance work, written and acted by the same person, inspired by parts of the creator’s biographical experience using poetry, music, myth, magic, monologue and dialogue (primarily with the audience) to weave the story together.

It is clear that interaction with her audience is important. During the play, characters interact with the audience, most notably when Mudgu gets on her bus at which point d’bi.young walks through the rows of seated audience members, speaking to them as if they were passengers on the bus.

d’bi.young held a ‘talk back’ session after the play which gave the audience a chance to discuss the play with her. During this discussion, d’bi.young said that she did not think about how others would receive her work while writing it. This is apparent in her incorporation of Jamaican history and culture into her play. As many non-Jamaicans are not familiar with Jamaican history, languages, and culture, there is a lot that could be lost on them. d’bi.young is right to not let this stop her exploring what she wants to explore. Although she does explain who Queen Nanny is and what the meaning of blood claat is, there are many cultural references that are not explained for the audience but those who are familiar with Jamaican history and Afrocentric motifs will immediately recognize them.

For example, Mudgu’s last name is Sankofa. Sankofa is an word of Akan origin (an ethnic group from present day Ghana). The word Sankofa relates to the concept of taking what is good from the past and using it in the present. In Afrocentric circles, this relates to the need for peoples of African descent to learn the history, cultures, and spiritual traditions of our ancestors in order to enrich our lives in the present. Also in the play, Queen Nanny often uses the word Kromanti. Kromanti is a ritual language derived from Twi (a language spoken in present day Ghana) that was used by the Maroons of the Blue Mountains and their descendants, particularly in Moore Town, during ceremonies in order to communicate with ancestors. It is still spoken by some elderly Jamaicans today.

Queen Nanny on the Jamaican 500 Dollar Bill

d’bi.young is currently on a world tour with blood claat. I encourage you to see the play if it comes to a theatre near you. You can see her tour dates on her website.

Further Reading:

Review of the play in the Ottawa XPress (2009)

Review of the play in The Financial Post (2006)