Image of a group of young people standing on stage singing with a guitar

Performance of Quiet Revolution / Photography by Vita Cooper

Racism and transphobia almost derailed my life. Then I found acting

How a theatre program for youth helped me find my purpose

Igrew up in a small town, with a mostly white population, where there was not much space for me—a Black youth coming to terms with my queer and trans identity. When I was 21, I moved to Toronto, hoping to find a community. I got a job and, for the first time, was thinking about going back to school. But I was living in a transitional house and couldn’t properly focus on anything other than finding a stable place to live.

Finding housing in Toronto is difficult. Being queer and trans, and a Black youth, can make it very difficult. Often I’d go see a place, with my first-and-last-month deposit in hand, then just never hear back from the landlord. I was feeling anxious about my future when my caseworker at the transitional house told me about the Artists Mentoring Youth (AMY) Project, a free theatre mentorship program for young women and non-binary youth. I applied, because I’d long been curious about being on stage. I’d never have guessed how this experience would have a positive impact on every area of my life.

I first realized the power of theatre when I was in Grade 8 and saw To Kill a Mockingbird. It was the first time I saw a story about discrimination, and I kept thinking: This is important—people should see this. I’d wanted to talk about what it’s like to be marginalized for a very long time, but I hadn’t known how to do it. Now I knew theatre could be a tool for social justice.

Image of a group of performers acting on stage

On my first day at the AMY Project, I felt intimidated. Everyone seemed so impressive! I’d done Grease in high school, but there were participants there who introduced themselves as “stage performers.” And some of the youth were in university. When I was a kid, people just didn’t see me amounting to much, so I worried about what people here would think of me.

Thankfully, our co-directors Nikki Shaffeeullah and Julia Hune-Brown were always mindful of our comfort in the group. That first day, they taught us how to use a peer buddy system to explore any difficult feelings that were coming up for us.

We were also paired with mentors from Toronto’s performing arts community, and we had input into choosing the people with whom we’d work. The most important thing for me was to have a person of colour mentor me, so they could relate to the racism I’d experienced.

I was matched with multidisciplinary theatre artist Audrey Dwyer, who was a perfect fit. It was cool to have someone so accomplished want to spend time with me. She would ask me about my process, as I was digging deeper into difficult experiences, and she’d check in to make sure I was practicing self-care. She even invited me to things like a Christmas dinner for the queer community.

Image of two people sitting at a table working on a project

At workshops, we wrote about personal and painful things. For me, that was transphobia, fat phobia, and anti-Black racism. I’d experienced bullying throughout my life and always tried to push my memories and feelings down. But I ended up exploring this aspect of my past in a monologue I wrote and performed about my relationship with my nose. It sounds weird, I know, but trust me—it was a healing experience.

I have a big, broad nose. It’s very different from my sister’s slim nose, which people have always seen as prettier and more feminine. Having a bigger nose made me look “Blacker.” Kids in the playground would bully me about it, only it was never really about my nose; they just wanted to make sure I knew I was different. And there’s a line in my monologue about how my mother told me to put a clothespin on my nose to pinch it into submission. Internalized anti-Black racism existed even in my own home.

As we worked on my monologue, our co-director Julia told me her mother had suggested the same thing to her as a child. Hearing that made me feel less alone. Through writing, I came to appreciate my nose as a perfect body part that allows me to “breathe in and blow out all the haters.” That was so healing.

Through eating, writing and eventually performing together with fellow participants, I began to find the community I’d longed for. Some became my chosen family, and I could go on for days about how these folks have changed my life. But I’ll save that for when I win my first Dora Award.

It’s really fun being on stage and having people cheering you on. Some of my new friends in Toronto came out to see me perform at the Summerworks Performance Festival. But I also wished my mom and sister were there. At home, we don’t talk about the things I talk about on stage. My family is very religious, and fundamental parts of me don’t fit with their cultural norms. To me, it’s sad that they’ll never see me do something I love and be proud of me.

At my first performance, before a room full of strangers, I felt overwhelmed with emotion. I’d kept so many of the stories I shared to myself for so long, and a part of me had convinced myself I’d overcome them. As I delivered my monologue, I was surprised by how much they could still hurt. It was very healing to tell my stories over and over again so I could finally let go. I felt lighter after every performance.

It was amazing when people from the audience came up to me after a show and said how much they had related. It made me feel connected to a bigger community. There are still times when I feel isolated in life, but now I draw on those new memories, of people saying, “Thank you for telling your story—that happened to me as a kid, too.”

The AMY Project definitely changed my life. The staff helped me find a place to live, and I’m now enrolled to go back to school. Because of the people in AMY, I have found my purpose: storytelling, building community and giving others the opportunity to tell their truth. I still volunteer with the AMY Project and will always remain attached to this community in one way or another.

Now I will be the first person in my family to go on to post-secondary education. I can see myself having a career and doing well. This program has given me confidence—the kind of confidence that makes me feel unstoppable.

Make a difference now:

• Share this story with your friends and family!
• Sign up for The Good News Letter to get more stories like this in your inbox every Saturday.