Uju Umenyi

Looking Ahead - Emerging Playwright

Provided by Uju Umenyi

Joe Szekeres

Recently I had the chance to speak with community theatre performer Uju Umenyi who has challenged herself both as a performer and someone who has a vested interest in the arts. As we are all too aware, Covid decimated live theatre on the professional and non-professional stages; ergo it’s crucial to help re-build the industry and the love of the oral arts plus re-ignite that creativity spark in any way we can.

I applaud Uju heartily when I learned of her avid interest as an emerging playwright. She likes referring to herself in this term because she is never afraid of starting something again since emerging can take place at any time during one’s life as there’s no set specific age. Writing has always been a part of Uju’s vision to a greater and lesser degree. She fondly recalled as a child she liked writing stories and ‘clickety clacking’ away on an old school typewriter while she jokingly plagiarized (when she didn’t know what the word was) some of the story ideas from ‘The Babysitters Club’ novel series for young people.

Earning a Thea Award for Best Performance by a Female in a Supporting Role for Scarborough Players’ ‘Doubt: A Parable’ as Mrs. Muller in 2019 at the ACT-CO Festival, Umenyi is appreciative for these opportunities to continue to grow in her love as a stage actor and would love to do so again. She really wants to try writing another play after completion of this current one in progress that you will discover shortly about the small town of Port Perry in Scugog Region, about a 45–50-minute drive east of Toronto. Further ideas she shared with me about possible future scripts would expand on the “spaces”, the types, and the fleshed-out roles that we don’t always see on stage for BIPOC individuals, for black people, for Indigenous people, queer and trans people or people fitting into different boxes they feel they cannot break out of.

Uju has been selected to be part of the third lineup of residents in the 2022 Creatives in Residence as part of Ontario Culture Days. Since launching the program in 2020, the program has become a key component of the Ontario Culture Days Festival showcasing the vibrancy of the Ontario arts and culture community.

Her residency is co-presented with Port Perry’s Theatre on the Ridge to create a new play inspired by the life of Samuel Stout, the first Black resident of Port Perry. Over the next five months, she will focus on community collaboration with her play culminating in community-based activities, a public reading and performance coupled with an audience feedback session and artist talk this fall in 2022.

At the time of this article, Uju has developed and already led a workshop focusing on both the theatre creation process of her play while exploring local Black history. It was a phenomenal experience for that week, but she felt terrified going into it knowing she has never gone through a workshop experience before but the actors who were there have done so. One fear she candidly revealed was knowing her play is not done yet so she knew each night she would have to go home, write, and then return the next day. On top of that she was tired from the workshop and its five-hour intensive days. The biggest accomplishment to balance things out was getting the play sketched out. Uju didn’t even expect that to happen but was elated it did through the improvisation of the actors present.

A lot has transpired for this personable, imaginative, and articulate lady since I last spoke with her for another column series I wrote at the height of the pandemic.

First, she’s feeling a heck of a lot better emotionally compared to a year ago. Whether it’s the human nature aspect of falling into a rhythm and pattern even amid uncertainty regarding this pandemic and finding some balance within it, or maybe it’s because she feels privileged to be pursuing something which she passionately cares about, Uju knows for a lot of people the arts base was not accessible to us during the pandemic. She says:

“No matter what end of the spectrum we may be on and how we feel about it, things have opened up and have brought about many opportunities for people to engage in the work once again both at the professional and amateur level, and this has done wonders for people’s mental health.”

And how did she become involved with the small-town professional Durham Region’s Theatre on the Ridge in Port Perry?

Uju saw the call through a Facebook group last year around June regarding this initiative of which she is now part. She humbly was trying to gather the courage to start writing. When she saw Theatre on the Ridge’s proposal, she thought it sounded like a really ‘cool idea’ as she has always been fascinated with history and the stories that emerge through time, and the stories we don’t always hear but happened.

Uju wrote a requested proposal and, with a laugh, sheepishly admitted said she never submitted it. She had emailed Theatre on the Ridge’s Artistic Director Carey Nicholson to ask for more information as Carey had Uju’s contact information already.

Umenyi playfully poked fun at herself as she knows herself too well in that she habitually does not follow through sometimes on things, and she is trying to stop doing that. When Carey emailed Uju that September to say that, even though the deadline had passed for submission, would she still be interested to submit a proposal? Uju took this as a sign regarding her proposal so she dusted it off, polished it a little bit, sent it to her mentor for some feedback, and handed it in thinking what’s the worst that could happen.

A conversation took place between the two ladies and the rest, as they say, is history.

Uju credits Theatre on the Ridge in taking a leap of trust and faith with her in obtaining this work experience as an emerging artist/playwright for her first play as funding in the theatre sometimes is limited or sets specific parameters for a purpose. Oftentimes there is an age restriction for emerging artists and, as members of marginalized communities are being given more and more opportunities than there were five, ten years ago who identify as BIPOC or across the LGBTQ2+ spectrum, it’s unfortunate to see funding parameters set by funders are such that they require these age limits. She firmly stated:

“If we’re going to start talking about breaking barriers down for people who have been marginalized for a sundry of reasons (socio-economic etc), then we have to break down the barrier that suggests an individual cannot emerge unless they are below whatever age gap. The assumption made here about those marginalized who have been pushed out wouldn’t have access to the opportunities to emerge at the point where it’s deemed as an acceptable time to emerge.”

What appeals to her about the person Samuel Stout from her research?

Uju described him as a fascinating person and became intrigued with the fact she could bring to light a story about him. But so little is still known about Stout, and Uju doesn’t negate the fact there was racism in the 1850s and how did Stout navigate all this. For example, he was a prolific musician who played many instruments, so where did he learn to play and how did he learn to play. She also discovered that Stout led the first Port Perry Town Band for many years; he might not have been the only black man then, but at one point he was. Stout added a richness and vibrancy to Port Perry and Uju believes this is a human element we hope that we can all bring to a small town.

I’m going to keep my eye on the progress of Uju’s script going forward and am looking forward to the fall and to the public reading and performance of the piece.

To learn more about Durham and Scugog Region’s professional Theatre on the Ridge, visit the website: www.theatreontheridge.ca.

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