Toronto-based actress Jennifer Neales’s hair has been the subject of much discussion since she joined the cast of Trey Anthony’s new production of da Kink in My Hair.
The landmark show was a runaway hit at the 2001 Toronto Fringe Festival. It was later presented by Mirvish Productions at the Princess of Wales Theatre before going on an international tour. Neales studied the play while at the University of Guelph, but she never imagined performing in it since it was written for a cast of eight black women. But when she scored a role in Anthony’s 2006 follow-up, I Am Not a Dinner Mint, the two became friends and began talking about a part for her in future versions.
“Working on Dinner Mint was such an inspiring experience,” Neales says. “I really wanted to do something with Trey again. She had plans for another version of da Kink, and I kept saying to her, ‘You gotta write a white girl in there!’”
Da Kink explores the lives of various women from different cultures and socioeconomic backgrounds who come together through a Caribbean hair salon in Toronto. They arrive ostensibly to get their locks touched up but end up telling their stories along the way. Exploring abuse and violence in equal parts with humour and joy, the company sees the piece as an opportunity for both storytelling and collective healing. Neales’s character, Suzy, is a white woman from the Southern US who fled to Canada with her husband and son because her family disapproved of their relationship.
Despite being the only Caucasian in the cast, Neales has never felt like an outsider.
“I’ve done a lot of shows where I’m the only lesbian or the only queer person, so I’ve tackled that sense of isolation before,” she says. “My character is somewhat ostracized in the script, so I can tap into that aspect in the performance. But in truth, this has been one of the most welcoming and open spaces I’ve ever performed in.”
Neales’s inclusion in the company meant an initiation of sorts when she had to have her hair bleached blonde for the show. After six hours in a hairdresser’s chair, she returned to the company’s hotel with itching eyes and a burning scalp.
“I’d never gone through that kind of process before, and I was shocked at how painful it was,” she says. “I got back to the hotel and my head was still on fire. The girls said I was part of their club after that. It still shocks me that some women put themselves through this all the time.”