The brilliance dance

With Billie’s Blues Revisited, Halifax hyphenate Taryn Della aims to speak a positive message to the young people of her community.

photo: Rob Fournier

It's less than a week to opening night of the Atlantic Fringe Festival show Billie's Blues Revisited, and its creator Taryn Della is going over some details with fellow performer El Jones.

They are working out the transitions between the different components of the one-hour show, which includes music, stand-up, drama and spoken word. As they bounce words back and forth, playing with images from "Strange Fruit," the '40s protest anthem made famous by the play's namesake, Billie Holiday, it's obvious that both women are excited by the project.

Della, a well-known performance artist, comic and activist, says that even though the show opens an avenue to talking about racism, it's not a lecture, but rather a vehicle to deliver a deep and serious message in a way that is wonderful and uplifting.

"The show is about the social ills that maintain their status in the lives of our babies, i.e., poverty, racism, exclusion and separation," she says. "But I also want it to highlight and embrace the beauty of our women and people and performers who, during a time of lynchings and coming through back doors and political upheaval for black folk, still did what they did with their brilliance."

"Brilliance" is a word she uses often, and a concept she tries to instill in the young people in her community of north end Halifax.

"These shows that I do and the place where my heart is, they're always connected to helping our babies to embrace their brilliance, embrace their history and believe that there are possibilities," she explains. "I want them to know they have choices about where they can go and what they can do, despite the history that dictated and continues to dictate realities for people of colour, right here in Halifax."

Though Della feels that the Fringe version of her show is too mature for most young people, she uses portions of it when she does motivational speaking at schools and youth conferences. She occasionally performs a poem called "Typical Black Woman," about turning negative stereotypes upside down and redefining them in a positive light.

"Kids get it," she says. "It applies to everyone."

Jones, a poet, spoken word artist and teacher with the foundation year programme at the University of King's College, agrees that is important for people to learn their history, but points out that in the case of African-Canadians, it's not always easy.

"I went to Chapters the other day to buy a book on African history, but when I looked in that section, it was all modern—stuff like Darfur," she says. "So the message, when that's next to world history and Greek history and everything, is, "You don't have history.'

"I couldn't find a single book that told me there is African civilization, that told me that Timbuktu was once considered the greatest civilization in the world, that told me that Egypt is in Africa....If you're lucky enough or motivated enough you might learn those things, but you sure don't learn them in school. Black kids need to know they come from an educated and cultured people, just like everybody else."

Jones also bemoans the fact that while most kids are familiar with hip-hop, they're not aware that there's black literature. And she laughs at the irony of what the mainstream considers the power of hip-hop.

"Why do people only hear the negatives in rap music?" she asks. "Suddenly, people are claiming they did something bad because of rap, and I'm thinking, "Really?' I had no idea the black voice was so powerful.

"Why don't they hear us when we say "Affirmative action'? Why don't they hear us when we say "Save our children'?"

Della, who has created several one-woman shows including My Blues Are Like Billie's and Don't Want to Make My Brown Eyes Blue, says that adding other performers like Jones to the project will introduce the audience to some of the brilliance in the community, and perhaps challenge people to create opportunities for talent to grow.

"I wanted to blend different ages and voices, because people hear things and take in things in different ways," she says. "I just think people will enjoy the show on a number of different levels."

The show is inspired by the life of Billie Holiday, one of the most influential female singers in jazz history. Despite her stellar talent and success, Holiday was also a drinker, a drug addict and a woman who made tragically bad choices in her relationships with men.

"Even though Billie died in '59, I think we're still dealing with some of the same social ills that she did," says Della. "I feel really connected to her and want to know more about her beyond the negative things. I don't think we can judge her when you think about the world she was living in, a world where black men were lynched and hung from trees like "strange fruit.' But we can learn from her bad choices and bring up our daughters by saying, "Here's what it means to honour your brilliance.'"

Billie’s Blues Revisited at the Atlantic Fringe Festival August 31, 10:30pm; September 1, 8:30pm; September 2, 9:15pm; September 7, 7:15pm; September 8, 8pm and September 9, 3:15 at DANSpace, 1531 Grafton Street, 3rd Floor, $8.

Kate Watson is The Coast’s theatre critic.

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