Interview: Theater Director Weyni Mengesha

Above: A Canadian of Ethiopian descent, Weyni Mengesha
is an accomplished director, actor, composer and the founding
member of “Sound the Horn”, the group that organizes the
annual Selam Youth Festival.

Tadias Magazine
Interview by Aida Fikre

Thursday, July 16, 2009

New York (Tadias) – The following is an interview with the critically acclaimed Theatre Director Weyni Mengesha, one of the founding artists of Sound the Horn – the organization behind the annual Selam Youth Festival in Toronto, Canada.

The event, which marks its 5th anniversary this year, was initially developed to empower Ethiopian and Eritrean youth in Canada through education in the arts to raise awareness about the growing number of HIV cases in both communities. Here is an interview with Weyni Mengesha:

Tadias: How did the concept for Sound the Horn and the Selam Youth Festival come about?

Weyni Mengesha: In 2004 I was a member of People to People Canada’s youth committee along with Jerry Luleseged, Maraki Fikre, Eden Hagos and Shae Zeru. We were asked to create a panel to address the rising rate of HIV within the young members of our community. We felt that it was an important issue but that a panel would not be engaging for youth, and that we needed to do more than deliver statistics. We developed a youth arts festival because we thought the rising rate could also be a symptom of a larger problem. We started thinking of our own confusion around our identity as Ethiopian-Canadians, culture gaps with our Canadian peers, misunderstandings with our parent’s generation and the culture of silence around sexuality. Being misunderstood and lost without open communication within your household could leave young people vulnerable to risky behavior and poor choices around healthy relationships and sexuality. Sound the Horn was developed after the great success of the first festival when we decided to develop the idea further and name ourselves. We have been working together since, developing the festival and training the next generation of artists and community leaders. Sound the Horn leadership program trains ten members a year in different artistic disciplines, health education and leadership skills.

Tadias: With all the major obstacles that plague African and other third world countries, what was the driving factor in choosing the fight against HIV/AIDS as a main cause for Sound the Horn and the Selam Youth Festival?

Weyni: The original idea was developed with People to People Canada whose focus is HIV education and support, locally and back home. It is a reality we need to be educated about, but it is also an entry point for many discussions around what is causing this to be such a big problem among people 15-26. We thought the best way to find this out is to promote communication between this age group and our community. The festival provides a platform for them to express themselves. There is content around HIV education but there are also many other issues raised through the artists who are free to perform what they want. Ultimately it is a festival built to empower and connect our community and make it healthier.

Tadias: What can people look forward to in this year’s installment of SYF?

Weyni: We are excited to be bringing Wayna to the festival this year. This will be her first performance in Canada and we are always happy to connect our community to artists from different cities who are gaining success in their respective fields. I think our audiences will be inspired by her story of dedication, hard work and passion that lead her to her dreams. We are also excited to have Aida Ashenafi’s film Guzo which is also a Canadian premiere. I think it will offer many of the young people who have not been back home a better perspective of it. I am also very proud of our own film built by the Sound the Horn leaders that is premiering before Guzo. It is a ten minute short called “The Gap”. It is about mothers and daughters and the generation gap. I think there are lots of important issues raised with heart and humor.

Tadias: Where do you see STH & SYF in the next 5 years?

Weyni: We have moved from a one day to a three day festival within the five years and I look forward to being able to develop it further, especially in the film section. We would love to present up to four films a year. We would also like to connect with different cities and maybe make a ‘best of’ show and take it on the road.


Weyni Mengesha (Courtesy photo).

Tadias: What inspires you to get involved in the community?

Weyni: I was frustrated growing up in Vancouver as one of the three people of color in my school when the only reference others had for me was from the “we are the world” music video. I remember being excited about the Ethiopian actress on general hospital. I was so hungry to see a reflection of myself in society. This is how I got into the arts, and I credit it with keeping me on the right path. If you don’t find a true reflection you can be vulnerable to investing in whatever images you find. Some of the images I found in the media around what it meant to be black were not productive. I started to create my own expressions, which is a skill I want to offer to the next generation. Sound the horn leaders create work through film, theatre, poetry that is true to who they are and their cultural realities. They become confident and skilled in speaking out and expressing their ideas with their peers and society. I feel the arts can have a huge impact on a community.

Tadias: You are a well known and critically acclaimed Theatre Director in Canada. What are some of your exciting career highlights?

Weyni: I feel very blessed with my career thus far, I have been able to play shows across Canada, in New York and London. I love traveling because you learn so much about a society by the different ways they receive your art, I find it fascinating and very rewarding.

Tadias: What is your advice to Diaspora Ethiopian/Eritrean up and coming artists, directors, musicians, etc.?

Weyni: I am afraid it is not going to be anything new but I do feel it is true, stick to your dreams. The more you believe in your dreams and couple them with hard work, the more you will see things fall in into place. Make time for yourself to check in , keep asking yourself what you really want to create. As an artist one of my key tools are my instincts, time alone with your thoughts can sharpen your instincts and keep them unaltered from everything around you which could water down your unique quality.

Tadias: What should we be looking forward to from you, artistically? Any future projects in the works?

Weyni: My next main stage production is called Yellowman by Dael Orlander-Smith. I am directing it for the 30th anniversary season of Nighwood Theatre Company. It is a piece about shadism, the discrimination between us as black people for our dark or light skin.

Tadias: Any plans to produce and direct in the US? Ethiopia?

Weyni: I have directed a couple pieces in New York, I love traveling and collaborating with new artists. I look forward to those opportunities arising. All you artists out there who want to collaborate or be involved in our festival please contact me at weyni@soundthehorn.com!

Selam Youth Festival from soundthehorn on Vimeo.

If you go:
5th Annual Selam Youth Festival
From July 17th – 19th, 2009
104 Cedarvale Avenue
Toronto, ON, M4C 4J8
Phone: 416 690 8005

9 Responses to “Interview: Theater Director Weyni Mengesha”


  1. 1 Sean Sax Jul 16th, 2009 at 1:23 pm

    It’s refreshing to read about the efforts that this woman has put forth in regards to bettering her community. I think it’s something that I lot of us can learn from. Keep doin’ ya’ thing girl!

  2. 2 Biruk Jul 16th, 2009 at 1:52 pm

    I once met Weyni in Vancouver. She is dynamic! Keep up the good work “Sound the Horn”!!

    peace

  3. 3 Nahom Beyene Jul 16th, 2009 at 8:38 pm

    I attended the Selam Youth Festival last year. The show was outstanding! It is a true festival of artistic expression and a remarkable production to draw people in and reflect on the impact of HIV/AIDS in our community. Beyond the entertainment and enlightenment….look a little closer and you will see a beautiful partnership between the youth and adults to confront a major issue for our East African communities as well as for most countries of the world!

    If you are still reading this…just stop and jump into any mode of transportation pointing towards the 5th annual Selam Youth Festival!!! You will thank me and yourself for it!

  4. 4 Dagnew Jul 17th, 2009 at 3:26 pm

    A very inspiring interview and totally agree with Nahom, this is an issue that requires all of us full commitment.

  5. 5 Berutawit Jul 18th, 2009 at 4:43 am

    Fantastic!

  6. 6 che Jul 19th, 2009 at 12:18 am

    nothing but love.
    tonight’s show was so inspiring.

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