Jewish/Afro-Caribbean artist explores mixed race identities

Jewish/Afro-Caribbean artist explores mixed race identities

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Sarah Waisvisz in her one-woman show Monstrous CHRISTOPHER SNOW PHOTO
Sarah Waisvisz in her one-woman show 'Monstrous' CHRISTOPHER SNOW PHOTO

Jewish/Afro-Caribbean artist, performer and playwright Sarah Waisvisz, 34, will be presenting her one-woman show, Monstrous, which explores the often ignored mixed race identity based on her own personal experiences, and her work on her PhD thesis research about Francophone/Anglophone literature specifically by Afro/Caribbean women.

Monstrous made its world premiere in February in Waisvisz’s hometown of Ottawa during the Undercurrent Festival. It will make its Toronto premiere on May 5, 8 p.m. at Toronto’s Artscape Wychwood Barns as part of the 14th Annual rock.paper.sistahz – a black, indigenous and multicultural festival featuring new works based on social issues examined in new and unusual ways. The festival runs from May 3-5.

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The 65-minute play, directed by Eleanor Crowder, encompasses, dance, song and projections. “The story is about my own experiences of being of mixed race and cultural background. The play is a quest, it is me trying to figure out who I am and who my family is. There’s some secrets, there’s some weird stories and some unbelievable facts.

“The play comes from the premise that I know a lot more about my Jewish and European ancestry, but not a lot of my Afro-Caribbean ancestry,” says Waisvisz, whose maternal grandmother is French Swiss with roots in Hungary.  She was secretly Jewish.

Waisvisz’s maternal grandfather was a non-Jew from Martinique with roots from the west coast of Africa. Her father’s family is from Holland with both Sephardi and Ashkenazi lines, in addition to a link to Dutch Indonesia.  Add to the mix, the playwright was born in Germany while her father was working abroad for the Canadian government.

She says the play is an autobiography that allows her to figure out who she is. At the same time, she uncovers certain issues on multiculturalism in Canada and overtly questions herself in the play, about if she has a right to tell the story of the Afro-Caribbean side of her family, since by now, she says it is really diluted.

“One of the other key questions is a response to questions I get all the time as to where I’m from: why do you look strange, what it your background, define yourself?” says Waisvisz. “It is about trying to figure out who we are and also realizing that perception changes depending on who is looking at us.”

Waisvisz says this is a play about Jews of colour, about the non-white, non-Ashkenazi Jewish experience which is already in our community and in our culture.  “So often in North America in our diaspora we tend to equate Jewishness with white European but that is not the whole story,” she explains. “There are people like me who have ancestry from a complex collection of backgrounds, or Jews of colour who have been adopted into families, or Mizrahi Jews who read as Arab, Indian Jews, Chinese Jews and Jews in the Caribbean.

“I would like Jewish audiences to see in the story, a reflection of their own questions of diaspora, exile and immigration. Many of the Jewish people who have seen the play have resonated at the core with some of my messages and the questions I bring up about belonging from a Jewish perspective.”

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In addition to being an academic, playwright, director, and multi-disciplinary performer, she has training in dance and physical theatre including classical ballet, puppetry, acrobatics, and stilts. Recent performance credits include The Glass Menagerie, My Name is Asher Lev, and This Is a Very Old Story, to name a few. This is not her first foray into playwriting. Her first, co-written and performed by Bronwyn Steinberg, is called Occupy Me, an interactive play about a yoga teacher’s quest for either activism or spirituality inflected with Jewish questions, while she leads the audience on a yoga class and a journey.  She is currently working on Heartlines, based on a true story about two French women during World War II, surrealist artists who were lovers, and worked for the resistance.

There are hopes to tour the show. Monstrous will be performed again in Ottawa on Aug. 3 at the Ottawa Jewish Community Centre.

Waisvisz is an active member of the Ottawa Reconstructionist congregation Or Haneshamah, and has a regular column for the Ottawa Jewish Bulletin called Dispatches from the Diaspora.


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