If you’ve watched Global at all recently, you’ve probably seen the promos for their new series Da Kink in My Hair, which premieres tomorrow night, October 14 at 7:30 p.m. The show is being billed as a sitcom, but that’s not actually the most accurate description. It’s a funny show set mainly inside a West Indian hair salon in Toronto called Letty’s, which sounds like it could be a very sitcom-ish premise, but it’s a single-camera show, there’s no laugh track, and greater emphasis is placed on character development than punchlines. Da Kink in My Hair follows the lives of Novelette and Joy, two sisters from Jamaica who run the salon, Novelette’s son Dre, and their employees Nigel, the womanizer, and Starr, who struggles with being the only non-Jamaican woman in the place.
We sat down recently with trey anthony (above left) and Ngozi Paul (above right), who play Joy and Starr in the series, respectively, and who are also the show’s co-creators and executive producers. We talked about everything from the state of black entertainment today, to the difficulties of having a show with queer content, to the transition the show made from being a Fringe play to a television series. And, of course, we talked about hair.
Torontoist: Let’s talk a bit about the long journey that this show has had, because that to me is one of the things that makes it so remarkable. Now, tell me if this is right, it started out as a one-woman show in the Toronto Fringe?
trey anthony: It was supposed to be a one-woman show. When I originally wrote it, it was supposed to be a one-woman show. But it never ever became a one-woman show. When we did it at the Fringe, it was actually cast with six women. Including myself, there were seven. Then it went to Passe-Muraille and to Mirvish, but in between that we also did the New York Fringe and the Atlantic Fringe Festival at Harbourfront Centre.
So, what are some of the biggest changes we can expect to see from the original play to the TV show?
trey: In the play, we used to focus more on Novelette. And we would focus on the clients coming into the salon. And Novelette would make references to having a daughter who was away in University. But now in the TV show, we have her more immediate family. And we focus on her—Novelette—her sister Joy, Novelette’s son Dre, and Starr and Nigel, and then the other clients come in through the mirror stories. And Novelette in the play was also quite feisty and outspoken; she was quite similar to the Joy character. Whereas the Novelette now that we have is quite a bit more straight-laced and kind of plays the…what do you call it?
Ngozi: The matriarch?
trey: Yeah, the matriarch, but there’s also a word that they use.
Ngozi: Not the straight man?
trey: Yeah, the straight man.
Ngozi: But she’s also what we call the Mary Tyler Moore character. Where the people around her are…
Ngozi: Yeah, a little bit more off-the-wall. The character of Joy came out of some of the more out-there characteristics that Novelette had in the play. Cause in terms of her and her everyday life running the hair salon, we knew we were looking for someone a bit more…
trey: I think just a bit more grounded.
Ngozi: That’s the word. Grounded. Definitely, that’s better.
One of the more interesting aspects of the TV show is the way that the salon clients’ “mirror stories” are presented. The women will come into the salon with a hair problem, and when Novelette touches their hair, it prompts a series of flashbacks that explain the emotional baggage that woman and her do are carrying around.
Ngozi: That’s what we spent a lot of time on.
trey: That was the hardest, cause in theatre, it’s easier to portray going into another world. But I think for us to do that in television without it seeming too…X-File-ish…
Ngozi: Ghost Whisperer, or something.
trey: That was one of the hardest things.
Ngozi: As if Novelette had some kind of supernatural powers, or she’s The Medium, you know what I mean? Instead, we’re just trying to keep it really grounded in reality. But still have an element of heightened… It’s almost like heightened reality. But still having it really grounded in real life.
Sort of magical realist?
trey: Yes! That’s what I say, write that down!
Ngozi: Magical realist. Exactly!
Because it seemed to me to be more magical realist than supernatural.
Ngozi: Yeah! I like that. I love it! Write down “magical realist.”
trey: (joking) Actually, to answer your question, really, it was more magical realism that we were going for… (laughs)
One of the biggest things everyone always mentions when they talk about the play Da Kink is that the audience reaction was so intense and involved. But now with the TV show, you aren’t going to have that same easy gauge of the audience’s reaction.
trey: Because my background is comedy and stand-up, I’d always encouraged and really thrived on having that live audience. I think I’ve encouraged at all of my shows from everyone who has followed my career that even though I am on stage, we are all engaging and participating. And we’re really hoping that with Da Kink, it’s going to be the same way. That people will probably watch TV and talk back to their TV. And we’re hoping it will have that same kind of effect; that you will engage and really feel that this is your family. That you feel invested in these characters.
Ngozi: When I was growing up, there weren’t like a hundred channels on TV, or three hundred, or four, or whatever, so the family actually watched TV together. Remember back in the day when the family would watch TV together? So we’re actually hoping families will watch these show together, and that was one of the amazing things about the play, is that daughters brought their moms, and their sisters, and their friends, and it really sparked discussion. So we’re hoping that families can watch this show together and talk about the things that happen.
When I was preparing for this interview, I actually watched the first two episodes of the show with a friend of mine, and one of the moments that we really reacted to is when Novelette’s son Dre really wants the new Nike sneakers so that he can look cool at school, but then his mom goes to “Honest Abe’s” and buys him the shoes, only the “Nike” is spelled “Nikee”: it has an extra “E”!
trey: Each and all of us have those stories. I think that I told Ngozi that some of the storyline about the extra “E” came from my Mom, and when we first came up and I think I was in high school, and those jeans were out: 501s. And everyone had 501s. And my mother was a single mom. And I remember going “Mom, I want 501s!” And she said “I’m not going to get you 501s, they’re too expensive.” And she came home one day and she says (doing her mom’s Jamaican accent) “I found them! I got them at Honest Ed and they were fifteen dollars.” And I said “501s?” And she said “Yeah!” And I took them out of the thing, and they said “301”. And my mother’s solution was to wear a sweater and just show the “01”. And she was like “nobody will know!”
Ngozi: Oh, but they know. They always know.
trey: They always knew! That one number made such a huge difference to me.
You’ve created a TV show with a mostly female, all black cast. And yet it doesn’t feel that much like a lot of other “black entertainment” that you see today on TV or at the movies. What do you think about the way black people are portrayed in general in our culture?
trey: I think a lot of the times when we have been portrayed, it has been very negative. And black women I think usually are portrayed as the Mammy-type, or the whore, or very asexual; it’s just along that spectrum. And I think black men are usually the drug dealer, or the murderer, or something like that. And I think one of the biggest compliments that I got after showing some of the raw footage to my brother was he said “you really make black men look good.” We were all very conscious of that in the writing. We have to push through the stereotypes of what people view as “black stories.” Because I remember how Da Kink was born, it was from that urgency of going to countless auditions and casting agents saying to me, “Oh, you don’t sound black enough” or “you’re not acting black enough.” And their idea of acting “black enough” was me to be moving my neck around and doing all this kind of jazz and being…
trey: Sassy! That was the best word. Ever. I used to always get:
trey & Ngozi: Can you just be a bit more sassy?
trey: And I thought, “these aren’t the black women I know. I don’t know anyone in my family who every time she talks has to move her neck like this, you know, and go into a spasm.”
I’ve never met a black person who’s been anything like black people you see on movies and TV.
trey: I know, and it’s just ridiculous. And you know that in order to make your living as an artist, a lot of the time as black actresses and actors, that’s what you’re reduced to, and that’s what we have to do. And so, I think, it’s important for us to be in charge and very conscious and mindful of that and say, “no; we wanna tell stories about the women and the people that we know.” I mean, I have a black brother, I have a black father; none of them to my knowledge has ever sold drugs or been shot. And that’s not to say that there aren’t people in the community who are like that, but it’s all that we ever see. And that becomes the reality, and that also becomes the reality that’s thrown out in mainstream, and there’s people who think that that’s what we’re all about. And one of the things we really want this show to be is a family as a family. And they have their ups and downs, and they love and they cry and they’re hurt, but there’s a human quality that I think is missing in most of the black people you see on TV. And I think we also have to look at that American influence; all of the time, that’s what we see as portraying all black people.
Ngozi: It’s one-dimensional. And that’s again one of the amazing things about the play, because the reason trey wrote the play was going into auditions and auditioning for, literally, “Baby Mama #1.” In China, I’ve heard that the word “challenge” and “opportunity” are represented by the same symbol. I really feel like in Canada, as first-generation Canadians, we are finally coming of age. And I do feel like, “here we are, we’re producing our own show.” And it was born out of, “OK, I’m not seeing myself represented, so this is a great opportunity.” Trey didn’t go, “OK, forget it, I quit.” She thought, “well, I’m going to write this play.” And she wrote it. And as an actor, I wasn’t like, “I quit!” I was like, “OK, let me become a producer and produce the stuff that speaks to me because I know I’m not the only one.” Because what that challenge said to me was, “OK, Ngozi, what are you gonna do?” You’re either gonna put on some hotpants and some stilettos and be like “Heeeeeeey!” or, cause that’s what they want you to do…
trey: That’s it, that’s exactly it!
Ngozi: I remember I played myself in an audience once, ugh, and I left the audition and felt so disgusted with myself. Cause they were like, “can you do more sass?” And it’s not like every time you’re like “no, I won’t! Goodbye!” You’re more like “you mean like thiiiiis? Is that alriiiight?” And you’re doing the chickenhead, and you leave and you’re like “ugh!”
trey: There was a really good article, I think about three weeks ago, and it was talking about the roles for black women in Hollywood. And I think that we have been designated as the sassy black best friend to white women. And if we’re in any Hollywood mainstream movie, that we are the sassy best friend who’s like, “girl, you better not let him treat you like that!” and that’s our whole role. And if you ever see black women, that’s what we are: the sidekick to the white woman, who is the love interest, and we get to say “get out there and get yo man!” And that’s our role! It’s just been a glorified Mammy to a new generation. And they were talking about that new Sex and the City movie and how Jennifer Hudson, who is now an Oscar-winner, her role is as the best friend to Carrie; she’s her secretary. And she gives her advice throughout the whole movie.
Ngozi: “Oh, no you di’in’t! Oh, yes you diiid!”
Trey: Yeah! And they said, “how much have things changed or not changed in Hollywood?”
It’s like Minstrel Shows, except now they get the black people…
trey: To play themselves! Yes, and that’s it now. Exactly!
trey: But that’s what they were saying, that it’s really surprising that we have an Oscar-winning woman now—
Ngozi: It really isn’t surprising, though.
trey: —in Sex and the City, and everyone’s saying, “oh, it’s really great, they’ve finally got black people in Sex and the City.” But her role—
Ngozi: She’s not one of the women who has any kind of sex in the city.
trey: No, her role is to give advice to Carrie, and she’s the secretary. And she’s like, (in a reserved, simpering voice) “Oh, Mr. Big!”
Ngozi: (in the sassy “black” voice) “He ain’t that big! Know what I meeeeean?”
trey: And I bet you that’s what it’s going to be.
In the original play, Da Kink in My Hair was notable for having queer content. In the episodes of the series that I have seen, there have yet to be any queer themes or storylines. Is this something coming up this season?
trey: As someone who is openly queer, it was imperative for me to have gay content in the show, in thirteen episodes, and to fight to be seen. I don’t see myself at all represented as a black queer woman. At all. And so it was really important for us to have an episode that dealt with sexuality. Especially because homosexuality is such a taboo subject in West Indian culture. And yet we have such a huge black queer community in Toronto; one of the biggest in the world is right here in Toronto. And yet everybody pretends that we don’t really exist. So we definitely have two or three episodes that deal with queer issues and transgender issues and we’re hoping for Season Two-
Ngozi: (knocks on wood)
trey: To explore it even further. It has not been easy, that’s all I can really say.
Ngozi: But it’s in there.
trey: It is in there. But it’s not something that everyone was jumping up and down to have, put it that way.
Ngozi: It’s not like everyone was like, “yeah, of course!”
trey: “Awesome! Let’s do a gay kiss!” But it’s something that is really dear and true to my heart. The play got written as I was coming out to my family. And I always look at that and say “there would be no Kink if there was no queer.” So that’s something that I cannot dismiss. Without that, we would not be sitting in this room doing this interview.
Even though it didn’t have any explicitly gay themes in the opening episodes, I did feel that the show, with its largely-drawn female characters and focus on being an outsider could be said to have a queer sensibility.
Ngozi: Of course.
trey: I agree.
Ngozi: Damion, the other executive producer, is openly gay. There’s three of us, and two of them are gay. Everyone thinks I’m trey’s girlfriend already. Both of my business partners are gay. God, I sound like those people, “my best friends are gay, and I love them!” (laughing) “And they’re so creative. They’ve never bothered me, not at all, not even on holidays.” We’re always around artists, people who identify themselves as all kinds of different things, so you forget that there are people who are like (gasps) “a lesbian kiss, wow!” It’s so funny, when we were writing, we didn’t even think about it. And we got notes back, and we were like, “what’s the big deal?” But you realize that it’s a huge deal to people, a huge deal.
Because it is a taboo in the black community.
trey: Especially in the Jamaican community. But what is funny is I just came back from Jamaica. Huge underground gay community. Huge. But nobody talks about it. But I went to Jamaica and I got picked up by more women in Jamaica then I’ve ever done in my life walking down Church Street. I was just like, “I cannot believe I’m in Jamaica!” Because, we’re not supposed to be here. And even one night before I left, my mother was like (in Jamaican accent) “and don’t be doing the things that you do here when you’re in Jamaica.” So, I’m there going, “OK, I’m gonna hang with my straight girls and try to pass.” But, the gaydar is out and people just sniff you; they know.
Within the music industry, I think we sometimes forget that these people are all artists, and so you have think, there’s gotta be tons of them that are gay.
trey: I truly believe, at the top of most entertainment fields, I believe…I would bet that at least 70% of them are queer.
Ngozi: Definitely queer. And queer means—
trey: On a continuum. Because you are open to such creativity and energy. I feel that naturally it’s just an industry that will attract queer people.
Ngozi: I think in our kids’ generation, a lot of them are just gonna identify as queer. You know? Like, “why do I have to pick a side?” Hopefully.
One of the things that excited me about Da Kink is the fact that it’s a TV show where Toronto gets to play Toronto. Because that is something that you so rarely see.
Ngozi: Toronto is such a vibrant city, and I still have yet to see a show that really captures the vibe of Toronto. When you travel around the world, there’s so many amazing places to see, and let me tell you: Toronto is definitely one of them. It’s an amazing city. The multiculturalism…it’s like, you come home and you’re like… (sighs audibly) You know what I mean? Chinatown. Greektown. Little Italy. Little Jamaica. The diversity is just incredible.
trey: You go to places like the States. And you can walk a restaurant, and it’s all black. Or all white. Or even, my mother does real estate in the States, and she said one of the things they tell you is what are black neighbourhoods and what are white neighbourhoods. And I’ve never thought about it twice, in Toronto, of where I should be living. You live where you wanna live. But yet in the States, it’s that divided.
Ngozi: In New York City, there are people who live in Brooklyn who have never left Brooklyn. They never leave Brooklyn to go to Manhattan. On the train! Blocks are like borders; it’s bananas. It’s bananas! So, I just think that in terms of Toronto, it’s really something for us to celebrate.
So many Canadian shows make the mistake of just trying to imitate American shows. I think it’s just silly to make these urban procedural dramas here when in the States, they already have a hundred of them and they have way more money, so they look way better.
Ngozi: When you have thirteen million dollars a season, as opposed to thirteen million dollars for one episode, you can’t compete. Literally, those are the numbers that you’re dealing with. For one hour, it’s big budget in Canada if you’ve got a million bucks per episode. In the United States, a million dollars is probably going to pay for somebody’s trailer.
trey: Or craft services.
When you look at the Canadian shows right now that are successful on an international level, they are the shows that are not trying to imitate American television. There are no shows in the States that are doing what Degrassi has done. And there’s certainly nothing like Little Mosque on the Prairie. So, do you think that with Da Kink—
trey and Ngozi: (both knock on wood)
trey: When we were writing the [production] “bible,” you know, they say what show is this like? And it was hard to find a comparison, to say, “OK, it’s blah blah blah meets blah blah blah.” Cause it’s kind of like, “what can we compare with Da Kink on TV?” No, it’s Da Kink. And it is what it is.
Some of the stars of the original Kink play, like d’bi young and Weyni Mengesha, have gone on to considerable success working in theatre in this city. Did you make an effort to include the original team in the TV series?
trey: Quite a few of the Kink girls have been involved. But one of the things that happened is the play went to England.
Ngozi: At the same time as we were shooting.
trey: So we lost a lot of our talent that we would have showcased. We had to make that choice that they would either go to England, or be in the TV show. But Weyni was directing the show in England while we were shooting the TV show here. We have Raven, we have Ordena. Me. Ngozi. Rachel. d’bi young is in an episode. Yeah, so we have a few people from the original Kink girls who are in the show. So we’re hoping in Season Two (knocks on wood) if there’s no play going on…
Ngozi: Well, we’ll try to book it at a separate time.
And what kind of response did the show get from British audiences?
Trey: Fabulous. Fabulous. Sold out. We’re very similar, the cultures in Canada, Toronto especially, and England. Cause there’s a huge West Indian population in England, and a lot of them are in a very similar situation to us as being First Generations, so they really connected to the play, they really got it. And I think one of the things they found so surprising was how similar we were. People were like, “I didn’t know that there was a huge Jamaican population in Canada!” Whereas when we did the show in San Diego, we had to massage it a bit and slow down some of the things. Black/white? They got it. Cause they know it. And it’s the same here. Because, you know, we’re able to go to school with different ethnicities. A lot of white people just get it. They get it cause they know it. It’s their neighbour. And also the Italians. The Portugese. We’re so similar! So very similar. Basically any immigrant culture. I always say we’re so much more similar than we are different.
Getting back to the show’s title, what is it about hair? Especially in the entertainment industry, you see so many black women who straighten their hair. Who bleach it. Tyra Banks has a weave that goes down to her waist: who knows whose hair that really is?
Trey: If you know that going to an audition with an afro is going to lower your chances of getting a gig, you’re gonna get the longest weave so you can pass and look as quote-unquote mainstream as possible. And going back to Da Kink, one of the initiatives and incentives to write it in the first place was, I will never forget this, Halle Berry was sitting on Entertainment Tonight bawling. Like, crying. “It’s so hard for me to make it in Hollywood as a black woman! I can’t get any roles!” And I went, “fuck. If Halle can’t get no roles as a black woman, then what are my chances?” And that was really when I started to say, “OK, who is writing and who is in charge?” And it always comes down to that. The right people can’t write and they aren’t writing black stories. And now I think Halle’s gotten wise to it, she’s started her own production company, she’s off shooting stories and she’s putting her ass up in them. Anybody really who’s making any money who does not fit the norm in Hollywood pretty much started their own shit. Tyra Banks, Oprah Winfrey, all of them have started to look at the bigger picture and go, “OK, if I’m gonna make any money and be anything mainstream, I need to start creating my own stuff.” It’s as simple as that. I say the same thing to a lot of women: be a writer. Be a producer. Because it’s not good enough to just be an actor.
Ngozi: But when we did Da Kink, I had a shaved head. trey had a shaved head.
trey: And that’s something that I strongly recommend to all women. Right across the board. Cut your hair off. At least once in your life. Cause there’s so much attached to your hair. And it’s just liberating to be able to acknowledge yourself and acknowledge your beauty without the hair.
Top photo by Marc Lostracco; all other photos by Ian Watson.