A Pact With the Universe

Scholar, storyteller and Guelph student brings ideas to life


In 1991, a 13-year-old girl looked up to the skies above Jamaica and made a pact with the universe. “I said that if the universe allowed me to be a storyteller for the rest of the days of my life, I would try to be the best human being I could possibly be,” says D’bi Young, a U of G master’s student in theatre studies and one of Canada’s most celebrated young artists. “That night changed it all.”

Before making that pact, Young had performed in Jamaica’s national theatre series. She says her performance was “amateur” because she’d been shouting and lost her voice. “I was really giving it all I had.”

The daughter of one of Jamaica’s pioneer dub poets, Young has clearly regained her voice and power as a performer.

She is currently touring three plays, blood.claat, benu and word! sound! powah! from her biomyth monodrama trilogy, sankofa. She is also touring with poetry, workshops and lectures. She received the Toronto Arts Council Foundation’s 2007 Emerging Artist Award and was featured at Heritage Toronto’s Great Canadian Roast. She has also recorded five albums and written two collections of dub poetry. Her latest album, wombanifesto, is scheduled for release later this year. She is currently playwright-in-residence at the CanStage Theatre and a member of the Tarragon Playwrights Unit.

Although Young may at times credit the universe for coming through for her, she also credits her mother, who raised her among a strong community of poets, actors and writers.

Young started acting when she was three and studied at the Edna Manley School of the Performing Arts in her early teens.

Growing up in the working-class district of Whitfield, she saw the struggles of the working poor and their vocal demonstrations of dissatisfaction with the policies that kept them there. She often questioned whether poverty was forever or if it was just for right now. For her, this was where life and art merged and where words led to social action.

“It was a beginning of my observation of how class works and how class shifts and changes,” she says.

Young adds that her observations became even more acute after she moved to Toronto in 1993.

“When I came here at 15, the divide between art and life became more apparent. Even then, I realized very quickly that my identity here in Canada as a black woman, as a queer woman or as a mother — all those things — would influence how I was treated and would influence whatever I was talking about. I remember coming to Canada being in my own body and seeing how things can change and how you can mean one thing in one culture and a whole other thing in another culture. It’s really about the relativity of the perception.”

She turned those perceptions into action and used them as an opportunity to explore her identity, and her pact with the universe began to blossom.

Over the past decade, Young has grown as a storyteller, captivating audiences as a poet, a singer, a writer and an actor. She has taken her talents to audiences throughout Canada, the Caribbean, Latin America and Europe. Some of her most notable moments include a spot on HBO’s Def Poetry Jam, a role in the London stage version of ’Da Kink in My Hair and being cast in Lord Have Mercy, Canada’s first black sitcom.

She is also the founder and artistic director of Toronto’s anitafrika! dub theatre, a residency program that mentors 10 to 15 artists each year in the genre of biomyth-solo-creation. Classes at the theatre are designed to be accessible to everyone, including emerging artists, street people, youth, differently abled people, aboriginal people, people with intellectual challenges and those who have been socially marginalized or discriminated against in some way.

“Monodrama allows me to have the most control over my art and my image,” says Young, “and I’m teaching because I believe that much of our own power has been taken away from us as artists. We’re being cajoled, coerced and seduced into making ourselves into an image that we don’t control. Sometimes we’re so far from that image. We have to hide our sexuality. We have to hide our true desires, our true thoughts, how we speak, who we keep as friends. There’s just a lot of hiding that happens, but with monodrama, I’m in my own driver’s seat. We need more people to be in their own driver’s seat.”

Young’s love of teaching has played a big role in her return to school. She says what she learns at Guelph will be invaluable as she helps to train a new generation of writers and performers at anitafrika! She adds that she owes a lot of her methodology to people such as Audre Lorde, Bell Hooks, Frantz Fanon and George Elliott Clarke.

“There’s always been a relationship between my work and these mainly black African theorists who located themselves in revolutionary struggle and revolutionary change. In Canada, we have these black scholars and theorists who have really influenced my work. I really do believe there are storytellers in all walks of life, including academia. I don’t believe I’m going to get answers, but I do believe I’m going there to get stimulated and to have another part of me challenged.”

Working under the supervision of Prof. Ric Knowles, Young is studying biomyth monodrama and its relationship to social change. But why would someone with her experience as a writer and performer take the time to go back to school amid the bustle of a successful career and raising two sons, aged five and one?

“I don’t believe anyone ever stops learning, and I hope I will always continue to learn,” she says.  “I was really impressed by the people I would have access to while at Guelph, such as Ric. He is really important to me. I really appreciate the work he’s doing. He’s a fantastic elder in terms of helping to guide me. Many of the faculty have taken the time to communicate with me and have reminded me that if you ask for guidance, you will get it. I think too often we forget to ask.”

Despite her success as a scholar and a storyteller, she says her most rewarding role is being a mother. Much like the team that works behind her to make her one-woman show a success night after night, a host of aunties, uncles and friends give her a hand with the boys while she’s juggling her work and school.

“I have my children around me all the time, and they’re absorbing the energy,” she says. “I don’t know what that’s going to do to them,” she laughs, “but I do know they see that I’m not somebody different when I’m with them and then someone completely different when I’m not with them. What they see is the same thing.”

To learn more about Young and the anitafrika! dub theatre, go to www.dbiyoung.net.