Illustration by Stephanie Kervin Illustration by Stephanie Kervin Stephanie Kervin

"Who the hell is Amy?” are one of the first words I hear from Shellie Green, a script coordinator and mentor to the young girls of The AMY Project. She is recounting to me her initial response to the project, and between stifled laughter, I share that my own was not much different. The name itself is an acronym for Artists Mentoring Youth, but a certain young woman is rumored to have inspired the program.

The AMY Project, or AMY for short, is an educational arts initiative designed to give marginalized and under-served young urban women the opportunity to get involved in a community and foster their creativity through writing and theatre. Each year, sixteen young women between 16 and 24 are chosen. They come together every week and share their experiences, with each other and with the project’s mentors, renowned Canadian artists who help them craft their narratives. Each of the girls chooses an issue that is dear to her heart, as well as the artistic direction she wishes to take with it, whether it be dub poetry, a monologue, a song or a rap. The project’s coordinators, along with the girls themselves, then quilt these individual performances into a cohesive production.

Co-directed by Claire Calnan and Weyni Mengesha, the acclaimed director of da kink in my hair, AMY is now in its sixth year and rounding out its fourth cycle of performances at Theatre Passe Muraille. Since its modest beginnings in 2005, AMY has become one of the most widely celebrated arts initiatives in the GTA, even having been invited to perform a theatrical piece at the Luminato Festival at Soulpepper Theatre.

For those without family, community and finances, exploring or even know the existence of various paths is a luxury. For many, choosing the right one is a miracle.

Many of the young women belonging to AMY found themselves at such a crossroads, and were chosen by the program’s coordinators for this reason. AMY positions itself at this junction, a lighthouse of sorts for vulnerable women unsupported at the crossroads of life.

Shellie, now having been involved with AMY for three years, first as a participant, then a youth liaison, and now as a mentor, speaks of the impact the program had on her life. Having grown up in a rough neighborhood ridden with gang violence, Shellie became involved with a bad crowd and eventually found herself homeless. Though she was well aware of the danger that her lifestyle brought on, she confessed that her crew was her family and all that she knew. AMY gave her another home, another way to be. “It was a turning point in my life to make positive decisions, to keep on the positive path and discover myself.”

Now a writer and photographer for Urbanology Magazine, Shellie is paving her own creative path and credits AMY with the confidence she now feels in her talent and her voice. “AMY enables young women to feel like they have a voice. A lot of girls feel like they have been silenced, but through this program they have found their voice, and have found how powerful their voice can be.”

When I finally reach the theatre, I am struck by the fact that it looks more like a country cottage than a inner-city community space. Dutifully labeled The Children’s Peace Theatre, this wood-and-stone structure serves as the weekly rehearsal space for AMY. I feel like I have left the city, its dirty buses and crowded herds of tired riders. Flanked on either side by two cheerful AMY girls that kindly adopted me on the walk to the theatre, I enter to the sounds of laughter and the aroma of a ginger-infused stir-fry. I have decided to spend the evening here, observing the program and sneaking a peek at a rehearsal for their upcoming performances in April.

Before long, I am shuffled into the kitchen, empty plate in hand, where I am given heaping portions of beef and vegetable stir-fry, and find myself at the middle of a long wooden table brimming with youth and excitement. The conversation at the dinner table is casual, at times boisterous, but remarkably diverse. As the topics weave seamlessly from health care to the struggles of education, from careers and relationships to travels and creative pursuits, I bask in the glory of the dozen and half young women whose unrestrained enthusiasm is pollinating the air around me.

As dinner transitions into rehearsal, I sit and quietly observe these bubbling women take their places. In between playful banter and riotous laughter, the girls hush one by one. Their voices take on a more solemn note, as they slip back into the dark places that brought them to AMY in the first place. I listen to a monologue about falling deeper into depression, and when this young woman still slinking her way out of high school says: “And you can almost believe that falling is all you’ve ever known.” I feel the hairs on my arms raise in protest. She recedes and another replaces her, speaking in dub poetry of a love so big and blind, it can heal all the broken people of the world. A song is sang, then a rap.

This year, the play is set in a mega-store that sells everything the soul may desire. You may find dollops of truth, or even great big containers of it, in the Aisle of Truth. Or flawless beauty, or the perfect father, but I forgot which aisles those belong to. Maybe they are in the Aisle of Escape. The women slip through the philosophically profound set, each exploring the themes that have plagued them in their own lives – sexuality, depression, discrimination, death.

One of the wryer moments comes when Anna-Maria, playing a stock-girl, announces: “I don’t want to stock Truth anymore, it is too heavy.” The play, aptly titled Check Out (and with the adorably disturbing tagline: We Take Cash, Credit or Soul), will be showing at the Theatre Passe Muraille on April 8 and 9. Do yourself a favor and do indeed check it out – your soul will thank you.

Check Out will be playing at the Theater Passe Muraille on April 8 and 9. For more informations on the AMY Project, visit their Facebook page.

Additional Info

  • Subtitle: The AMY Project lends an artistic hand on the search for identity
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