At just 21 years old, Abigail Whitney is a full-time University of Toronto undergraduate student, model, actor, and now, director. Whitney is majoring in Theatre and Performance Art, with a double minor in English Literature and Equity Studies. When she is not in a lecture or a library, she models for CoverGirl and Vogue Italia, and most recently, she has become the centre of Sephora’s national beauty campaign.
Whitney’s latest creative endeavour is directing the UC Follies’ show Les Frères (The Brothers) by Sandra A. Daley-Sharif. The play stars Kwaku Adu-Poku, Kato Alexander, and David Delisca as the brothers, with Most McNeilly as Woman and Rob Candy as Mr. Brent Ewens.
The Varsity sat down with Whitney to discuss how she, as a woman of colour, navigates being both hyper-visible and invisible in her three worlds: student, director, and model.
The Varsity: How are you juggling being a full-time student, director, and model all at once?
Abigail Whitney: Yeah, it’s so much, but I knew that I wanted to direct this play and I would do anything to just make it happen. Currently, I have assignments due, so I couldn’t even schedule rehearsals this week because I knew I had to focus on school. The actors are super understanding about it, because this is the only week that I haven’t been able to have rehearsals and they’ve been rehearsing together.
I have a [modelling] gig today — I’m such a bag lady on campus. I have this interview, and then a class, and then I am missing part of another class, and then I have another interview, and then I have to run to the shoot, and then I have class in the evening. So I’ve been able to sort of balance school and model, but it’s definitely a lot on my plate.
TV: That’s incredible. It all sounds quite demanding. How does the industry navigate your availability?
AW: As long as I’m free, I can let them know that I can schedule something, but they are totally up-to-date that I’m directing [Les Frères] and that it can’t conflict with show dates or anything like that. They are completely aware that I’m a full-time student as well, and they know my class schedule, so they try to work around that. Honestly, I feel more like a student because I’m a full-time student. I’m not yet a full-time model, so I consider myself more of a student.
TV: The fact that you’re part of Sephora’s national campaign is a big deal. What’s it been like working in the industry as a woman of colour?
AW: It is a big deal. I take it so seriously because I know having this opportunity doesn’t come to every dark-skin Black model. And, oh my gosh, it’s super emotional too… it’s rare — just the slightest opportunity is huge and a super big deal. I’ve met so many incredible women of colour on set who are tremendously supportive. Doing this campaign, I was kind of low-key when I went into the Sephora stores, but my friend was with me and she’s told all the workers, “That’s the model.” And then I had really beautiful Black women come up to me, who were like, “Oh my gosh, to see you, you know, a dark-skinned Black model, showcased with this huge brand.”
I’m just happy for the support that I’m getting. I haven’t had a negative experience, but obviously coming into it, I was a bit hesitant, because of the perceptions of being a Black model [and] what kind of shoots they might put me in because of the way that [the industry] perceives Black women. I thought that would have an intense role in what I could do. That’s something that I just thought might happen, but that has really never been the case.
TV: You co-directed I Can’t Trust Anyone, Everyone Hurts Me: A Comedy for the U of T Drama Festival earlier this year, but Les Frères is your directorial debut — how have the two experiences differed, if at all?
AW: When this play came around, I knew I had to do it on my own, because it’s unique to my experiences. It’s still a collaboration, in the sense that I am collaborating with my set designer, my lighting designer, and my actors as well. These ideas are not solely mine. I still welcome opinions. It’s honestly just a total learning experience, and I want the work to be transparent with both the actors and me. They tell me how to improve. I tell them how to improve. It’s student production. We’re all learning. We’re all just trying to make the best out of things.
TV: Now that you’ve worked professionally in the industry, how does that translate into student productions and your understanding of them?
AW: I know that there are limitations to student productions — limitations with budget, with how much energy and time people can actually commit to the production compared to when you’re doing, say, a professional modelling gig. [In that scenario] everyone is focused and zeroed in on that and they’re not thinking about other commitments. But for this, the actors have other commitments, the stage manager and assistant stage managers have other commitments, [and] I have school. It’s a lot of balancing.
TV: For sure — everything is such a balancing act! Why is this play so important? Why should people go see it?
AW: For so, so, so many reasons. It’s the first time [Les Frères] has ever been staged. So really, it’s the premiere of this play. It’s just super amazing. When I asked the playwright for the rights, she was hesitant because [the script] was a draft so she didn’t know how I would feel about it and didn’t know how she would feel about it or if she wants it out there.
It will be the first time that [many audience members will] get to witness a play that centres around Haitian culture and [a] representation of Haitian history on stage. I’m half Haitian, so it’s just so full circle. It feels like an out-of-body experience just to have the opportunity, in a creative space, to talk about Haitian culture, to talk about Haitian history, and to speak the language. I remember when one of the actors was speaking Creole and I was just like, “Oh my gosh, this is so amazing.” The audiences will be able to witness that, and I think it’s a beautiful, really beautiful thing.
I have the opportunity to creatively express my own relationship with Haiti. I’ve never stepped foot in Haiti. I was born [in Toronto] and the play is allowing me to question what that means, and I am able to explore how I express that on stage. I completely relate to the male characters, in terms of them being displaced from Haiti and being displaced from their apartment as well.
They are estranged brothers and haven’t seen each other for over 10 years. There’s this fear of entering back into their apartment, and the play explores what the apartment represents and what it reflects — perhaps, our ideas of Haiti, or maybe it simply represents Haiti. So I get to creatively work through these ideas. The actors are doing an incredible job. It’s a lot, but it’s going to be really, really good.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Les Frères runs at the George Ignatieff Theatre from November 29 to December 1.