Mengesha is Soulpepper's new artistic director
February 6, 2019
In her third year at York University, Weyni Mengesha was at a wit’s end.
Enrolled in the Bachelor of Fine Arts program, she was extremely exasperated with much of the program content. .
“I wanted an African lens for some of the work I was doing,” a frustrated Mengesha remembers telling her mother. “I am just not getting enough.”
The family matriarch’s response was terse and direct.
“So what are you going to do about it,” was her mom’s calm reply. “Nothing is going to change unless you do something about it.”
With her mother’s advice, Mengesha was empowered to act.
She approached the dean with a request to do an independent study in her final year.
“I made it clear that I wanted to go across the country and write a paper instead,” Mengesha recalled.
The dean acquiesced.
With assistance from then department chair Peter McKinnon, she created, ‘In Search of an African-Canadian Theatre Aesthetic’.
“By creating my own path, I met Djanet Sears, Walter Borden and others who have been mentors and very inspirational to me,” said Mengesha who graduated from York University 14 years ago. “Instead of an obstacle stopping me, it actually helped me carve out a niche.”
After spending the last eight years in Los Angeles expanding her knowledge and raising two young sons, she returned to Toronto with her family last month to become artistic director of Soulpepper Theatre Company founded as an actors’ theatre in 1997.
The award-winning director and dramaturge emerged as the top candidate following a rigorous and exhaustive search.
Vanessa Morgan, the chair of the board, said Mengesha brings a unique set of values, passions, talents and leadership qualities that will help to shape Soulpepper’s artistic vision and direction.
“Weyni’s professional excellence, commitment to inclusion and passion for community building will be valuable at Soulpepper as we embark on the next stage of our journey,” added Morgan. “Her background with the Soulpepper Academy, her award-winning productions at Soulpepper and beyond, her experience developing new plays coupled with her understanding of our shared classical tradition and her interest in digital platforms and new media point to her eminent qualifications for the position.”
The three-time Dora Award winner joins the organization a year after co-founder Albert Schultz resigned amid sexual harassment allegations.
In the last year, Soulpepper has taken steps to strengthen workplace culture and good governance.
“I am excited about this moment where people want to sit down, have real and honest conversations and are willing to take action,” said Mengesha who last year was one of the signatories to a letter attesting there had been ‘an unhealthy workplace culture for a long time’ at Soulpepper. “This position also allows me to have a larger conversation with the city as opposed to just single conversations I have been having with audiences.”
Mengesha, who with new executive director Emma Sterling will work to develop and co-lead a five-year strategic plan with input from artists, staff , board members, donors and community members, is very familiar with Soulpepper.
She was part of the academy’s inaugural 10-member class in 2006.
It’s Canada’s only multi-year paid professional training program for the country’s brightest talent, offering a unique combination of studio training, academic study and applied knowledge-apprenticeship training with Soulpepper main stage company.
“It was an incredible experience to be part of the academy that gives artists the room to breathe, take risk, experiment and question what they are doing and why they are doing it,” said Mengesha who was the recipient of a 2015 Bikila Award for professional excellence. “That’s invaluable for an artist and I think that is why so many of us from that cohort are thriving.”
Composer Mike Ross and lyricist Sarah Wilson co-created ‘Rose’ -- the first musical Soulpepper has created from scratch -- that made its world premiere last month while D’bi Young Anitafrika is an award-winning published playwright and dub poet.
Mengesha also directed some of Soulpepper’s most successful productions, including ‘A Raisin in the Sun’, ‘Father Comes Home from the Wars’ that won a Dora Award for Best Production and ‘Kim’s Convenience’ that was one of the most successful shows at the box office in the company’s history.
Three years ago, she turned down an opportunity to be one of Soulpepper’s two artistic directors.
The time, Mengesha said, wasn’t right
“As an artist, I was still honing my craft,” she pointed out. “I wanted to continue to challenge myself and make sure I have enough to offer.”
In California, she produced her first short film – Hero, Traitor, Patriot – that played at several film festivals, made her American directorial debut with ‘Bars & Measures’ that was nominated for a National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) Theatre Award in the Best Direction category and debuted in New York City two years ago with Martin Zimmerman’s ‘Seven Spots On the Sun’.
Mengesha also directed the gripping political thriller, ‘Butcher’, and --with Mitchell Cushman -- co-directed ‘Breath of Kings’ which was a commissioned two-part exploration of Shakespeare’s four-play Henriad history cycle brought to life by Graham Abbey. It highlighted the 2016 Stratford Festival.
Born in Vancouver to parents who fled Ethiopia’s civil unrest after Haile Selassie – the great great-grandfather of Mengesha – was overthrown in a military coup in 1974, she moved to Toronto at age 15 to join her father and graduated from Dr. Norman Bethune Collegiate Institute in Scarborough.
Scarborough Walk of Fame inductee Dwayne Morgan was a schoolmate of Mengesha.
“There weren’t many Black students at the time, so the few of us stuck together,” the award-winning spoken work artist recalled. “We put on Black History Month events and were active in our Black Students group.”
While in university, Mengesha wrote ‘Lot 1975’ that Up From the Roots Entertainment Inc. – Morgan founded the company in 1995 while still in school to promote the positive artistic contributions of African-Canadian and urban influenced artists – helped produce.
“That was when I realized what Weyni’s passion was,” Morgan added. “She has come a long way since then and I think she brings a youthful perspective, among other things, to her new role at Soulpepper. With her at the helm, there is a greater opportunity for stories from different people to be heard and put on stage.”
Award-winning playwright & producer Trey Anthony was a cast member of ‘Lot 1975’ that sold out over three nights at Yorkwoods Theatre. Mengesha stayed in touch with Anthony and was delighted to be asked to direct her first play, ‘Da Kink in My Hair’, that debuted at the 2001 Toronto Fringe Festival.
Making the transition from California to Toronto was seamless for Mengesha.
“This is where I grew up and it will always hold a special place in my heart,” she said. “This is where most of my family and friends are. This city shaped me as a human being and I feel I have a responsibility as an artist from Toronto to ensure that the artistic community is healthy. My boys are so excited because they have never played in snow. It was also such a thrill for them when they learned they would be close to their grandmother. Since I have been back, my parents have been at my home every day.”
Welcome back Weyni.