In She Mami Wata, queer Jamaican friends reckon with spirituality, sexuality and Black womanhood
'In Jamaica, there was no room for any kind of queer celebration or queer support,' says playwright
*Originally published June 2, 2022.
Life in Jamaica today for most LGBTQ people means either being punished by law or shunned by their community.
"Growing up at the time that I did in Jamaica, there was no room for any kind of queer celebration or queer support," said Jamaican-Canadian playwright and dub poet d'bi.young anitafrika.
Her play She Mami Wata and the Pxssywitch Hunt, which is currently being mounted as an audio drama by Toronto's Soulpepper Theatre Company, follows the lives of four young queer people as they navigate a largely homophobic Jamaican society.
It's part of the theatre company's series, Around the World in 80 Plays, which features theatrical works from eight different countries. To accompany the plays, IDEAS is following the series with interviews highlighting how these iconic plays intersect with contemporary Canadian multiculturalism.
The church and spirituality
In the play, anitafrika explores the complex nature of spirituality in Jamaica, which is split between Christianity and the practice of African traditional mythology.
"I like to pull on Ifa spiritual tradition and so, like in all of my work, the deities Yemanja, Oshun, Oya appear in the work as well."
The titular 'mami wata', anitafrika explains, refers to magical sea entities that roam around the entire planet and are able to instigate phenomenal occurrences, such as providing spiritual and protection and healing to her followers.
"It's a really incredible mixture to witness the ways in which Black peoples have owned colonial Christianity and reframed it as a liberation tool," anitafrika said.
Through the play, and her other work, anitafrika challenges the legacies of colonialism as they exist in Jamaica, and attempts to re-write the societal narratives — homophobia, respectability and more — that emerge from them.
And despite having strong roots in African traditional spirituality, in Jamaica, the Christian Church remains the dominant voice, particularly in conversations about sexuality and the family.
"The church would have different marches saying they're they're against homosexuality and they are protecting the sanctity of the family," said Shawna Stewart, grants and partnership manager with WE-Change, a community-led feminist organization that advocates for lesbian, bisexual and queer Jamaican women.
"In their opinion, the family is a man, a woman and children, and they're protecting that."
Homosexuality in Jamaica is illegal, and because there is such little distance between church and state, the homophobia preached within the church has a large impact on the stance the government takes.
"The church has a lot of say in what the government does and our parliamentarians and our prime minister," Stewart said. "They are very afraid to upset the church because the church is their largest group of supporters."
This complex state of affairs and the immense pressure it puts on Jamaica's LGBTQ communities is at the heart of She Mami Wata and the Pxssywitch Hunt.
She Mami Wata and decolonization
Of the play's four central characters, it is Nikki who drives the story along. The circumstances of her life are a mystery, although it's mythologized in the play that Nikki was left on the beach after being birthed by the mami wata.
"We don't know what the reason is for Nikki to be left on the beach, but we do get a sense by the end of the play that maybe Nikki came to the planet or was given to the land by the mami wata to accomplish something very specific, and to effect some sort of social change," said anitafrika.
Through the stories of Nikki and the play's other three characters, anitafrika is attempting to decolonize the harmful ideas around not just spirituality, but sexuality in Jamaican society as well.
In one of the play's early scenes, Michael, another member of the group, finds out that Nikki and a third friend, Kizzie, are in a relationship, and he threatens to expose them to the entire community.
"He feels betrayed because he's caught between the homophobia that he's been taught and the potential impact of their actions on them," said anitafrika.
In the play, Michael's mother was murdered, and it's rumoured in the community that she was killed because of her sexuality. antifrika says that without even understanding what his body is experiencing, his existing trauma leads him to go through a "complete trauma response."
At the threat of being outed, Nikki is forced to leave her home in the community of Little Rock, an experience that is not uncommon in Jamaican society.
"A few years ago, we supported two women who had to leave Jamaica because their lives were being threatened by persons in their community," said Stewart. "Whenever they moved to a space and persons in those communities find out that they're together or assume that they're together, they're targeted."
Years after leaving Little Rock, Nikki becomes an erotic dancer at a place called the Pxssywitch. It's a space that doubles as both a club and a safe space for queer people just like her.
"I envision collective spaces that are safe for queer peoples," anitafrika said. "And that's part of what I'm reaching towards in the Pxssywitch when they gather on that particular Saturday night because the police have started a new hunt for queer people."
The Pxssywitch is also a place where Nikki is allowed the full expression of both her queerness and her Black womanhood, something that resonates strongly with anitafrika.
She first came up with the idea for the play while she was at a nightclub in Jamaica, and witnessed a young Black woman "own herself and express herself through these highly sexualized moves on a pole," she said.
"It blew my mind away to see her challenge everything that we had been told growing up about what it means to be a woman, what it means to be respectable, what it means to be beautiful."
Guests in this episode:
d'bi.young anitafrika is a playwright, performer, dub poet, theatre interventionist and decolonial scholar.
Shawna Stewart is the grant and partnership manager with We-Change in Jamaica, a community led feminist organization that advocates for lesbian, bisexual and queer women.
Find the full production credits for the Soulpepper Theatre Company production here.
* This episode was produced by Tayo Bero.
Around The World in 80 Plays is an audio drama series mounted by Soulpepper Theatre Company that takes listeners on a trip around the world. IDEAS will be your guide on that journey with radio documentaries exploring the cultural and historical context from these countries. Find more episodes from this series here.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of.