Our Lady in Stratford: Weyni Mengesha on Tremblay’s Hosanna
When Michel Tremblay wrote Hosanna, his 1973 masterpiece about a transvestite queen coping with sexual identity and aging, he could not have known what a long and illustrious life it would have. But perhaps more interestingly still is who this illustrious festival has chosen to direct the now canonical work: avant-garde director and creator Weyni Mengesha.
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With the resounding success of St. Carmen of the Main at the NAC last spring— not to mention the musical adaption of Les Belles Soeurs that played to sold-out houses— the English production of Hosanna at the Stratford Festival is proof that Michel Tremblay is having a true resurgence in the mainstream, even with all its gender-queer themes and Almodóvaresque “female troubles”. But perhaps more interestingly still is who this illustrious festival has chosen to direct the now canonical work.
Avant-garde director and creator Weyni Mengesha came to national prominence in 2005 with her directorship of Trey Anthony’s Dora-nominated play ‘da Kink in My Hair, for which she also wrote the music. She subsequently made a host of Montréal fans as director of the racially and sexually charged one-woman play blood.claat starring d’bi.young.anitafrika, which showed at the Black Theatre Workshop. Since then, Mengesha has been on a wildfire track of success with A-house productions of Orlandersmith’s Yellowman and the pre-civil rights classic A Raisin in the Sun. A Toronto-based artist of Ethiopian heritage, Mengesha continues to make theatre on the grass-roots level with her youth group Sound the Horn, while simultaneously preparing to premiere a new massive opus at Canstage this fall. We couldn’t help but wonder, how did she come to direct a Québecois classic in a one of the country’s more exclusive summer festivals?
“They liked the way I worked,” says Mengesha, referring to artistic director Dean Gabourie who invited her to direct Hosanna after seeing A Raisin in the Sun. “I think it was the two plays I had done without collaborating with the playwright… the classical piece that first intrigued them.” Even though Hosanna is very far from what many people may see as classical theatre, with its sexuality and proto-transgender themes, it is a far cry from the creative process for which Mengesha is known, one that involves working with playwrights and actors to develop original work over periods of years. “When I read Hosanna, I was really taken by it. It was just a really beautiful piece. Generally I haven’t done a lot of classic plays at all. The playwright tends to be in the room because it’s a brand new play.” But although the repertory process was new—Stratford actors work the whole summer season and perform in several concurrently running productions—the themes of identity and sexuality in Tremblay’s work were an easy inroad for Mengesha.
“Communities who are marginalized have to wear different masks. Just like any character, people have different identities. That’s not something new. With the black community, sometimes people are dealing with wanting to be accepted in other communities, and they need to play themselves up (or not). This night, Hosanna’s mask is being challenged, so she has on tight.” When Tremblay wrote the play in 1973, the context of Québec sovereignty politics made it rife with double meanings. Some see the character of Claude/Hosanna— “a hairdresser by day and a Woman of the World by night”— as a personification of Québec, a nation forced by circumstance into being something it is not, the liminal body politic. The feeling of being trapped by society’s prejudices and expectations is a perennial theme in the work she chooses to co-create and produce.
Although she is not a queer-identified artist, Mengesha has a profound understanding of what LGBT people live through, and the challenges of making art about that experience. “I have a youth group called Sound the Horn and I’ve been fighting to get queer content but no one will come out,” Mengesha admits. As most people who work with youth know, many of them are aching to confide in someone without the fear of being judged, and many of them often come out to her because they trust Weyni with their secret. “It’s a very small group of people, and I can’t even connect them to each other because they are so afraid. What is this thing about black people’s liberation but at the same time there is so much homophobia?” she asks rhetorically, although she is all too aware of the social stigma that continues to plague the black community, as it does many new arrival communities and places where religion and tradition still control attitudes and minds. That’s why Weyni is so excited to have the African and Caribbean Community of Ontario as the title sponsor of Hosanna, an unequivocally queer play.
“I’m excited I get to invite my community to come out,” she enthuses, adding that she is trying to get buses to bring people from her community in from Toronto to see the play. As to why she did not decide to update or recast the play in some way, the director answers astutely that it had to be kept in its original context, both to make the title character’s problems believable, and for the audience to see “how far we’ve come” in terms of understanding and accepting gender nonconformity and sexual diversity. That being said, she has no illusions about the progress of homophobia and transphobia in white Canada, either. “Just two months ago, a drag queen in Halifax got shot through her front door with people yelling homophobic slurs,” she cites, referring to the hate-fuelled attack on trans/drag performer Chris Cochrane last June. The fear and violence that threatened queer people in 1973 was simultaneous to the start of the LGBT liberation movement, which had its radical heyday in the years after Stonewall.
As for a possible radical recasting, there’s something more important than that to be done. “Hosanna could be cast with people of colour. My feeling on that is hopefully a play like that [about black transgender people or drag performers] will get written or made now.” When people will see how daring Tremblay’s play was for 1973, she imagines a double impact: Tremblay’s radically gender-questioning work with her own socially and artistically engaged practice. “I can bring people from my community to the show and they can get inspired from that.”
Weyni Mengesha’s next production, Another Africa is an original piece that premiered at Illumunato in 2010. A mammoth project that was workshopped over 4 years, with 3 different writers from Uganda, Germany, and the U.S., the trilogy is about Africa’s relationship to the West. It opens Sept. 16 at Toronto’s Canstage.
Hosanna plays at Stratford’s Studio Theatre until Sept. 24.