Devanand Janki
Director & Choreographer

from The Edmonton Sun, 21 June 1998

Biting the Big Apple

Edmonton's Janki brings hit home

by Shelly Decker, Express Writer

A decade after leaving Edmonton to pursue a Broadway dream, Devanand Janki is returning to perform in his home town.

The high-energy Janki is ecstatic about his upcoming performance as Thuy in Miss Saigon at the Jubilee Auditorium, opening Thursday. "I've dreamed about going back there and performing, it's just never worked out. This is like the ideal thing," gushed Janki during a recent phone interview as he prepared to leave New York's main stage for one month to perform the same role for the travelling company's Edmonton stop. "I'm very excited to come back."

His expected arrival today marks the first trip home in five years for the 28-year-old, whose story reads like a fairy tale in an industry rife with unemployment and crushed hopes.

A performing arts success in Edmonton, at 18 Janki opted to try for the top and moved by himself to the Big Apple to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.

His time was consumed by constant auditions, studies and a swallow-your-pride, three-year stint as a singing waiter aboard a cruise ship, which helped pay school costs.

"It was the worst job. It was so horrible," laughed the exuberant Janki.

He remembers well the day he jumped ship after finding out, at 21, he'd landed his first Broadway gig as one of the star performers in Cats.

"I was on the dock getting ready to board the ship when the casting director called me and I ran on the boat, saying, 'I quit.'"

He performed the feline role for three years, which became a springboard to steady work. One of his biggest problems has been getting enough downtime to return home for visits during a remarkable career that has included the world tours of West Side Story, The King & I and Side Show.

In the theatre mecca where actors are as ubiquitous as coffee houses, Janki counts himself as fortunate.

"I'm one of the lucky few employed actors," said Janki, who's left to take on other roles and returned four times to the Miss Saigon Broadway stage, where he does eight performances a week.

And when he walks onstage to do his nasty character, a marked departure from other roles since he'll be just singing rather than dancing, it will be a notable return for the Old Scona high school grad.

For it was 16 years ago that Janki debuted in Carmen on the Jubilee stage.

It is an unlikely story for a young boy who was surrounded by academics: his mother is a former cardiac technician; his stepfather is a geophysicist; his stepbrother is a mechanical engineer for Ford in Detroit and his biological father is a biochemist.

"I'm like the black sheep," laughed Janki, who as a teen used to hang out on Whyte Avenue.

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Born in London, Ont., Janki lived in Germany and Australia before arriving in Edmonton with his mother when he was nine.

It was his stepfather, Douglas Bingham, a member of the Edmonton Opera Chorus, who convinced Janki to audition with the company. The Garneau elementary school student landed a soprano position.

He immersed himself in singing and ballet and found his true love when he was 14 and won a lead role in West Side Story.

His parents' encouragement was tempered with trepidation about his career choice.

"You always hear about the theatre; they're going to starve," said his mother, Sheila Janki-Bingham.

"If it was up to me I'd rather he do something else because it's a hard life, but I've encouraged him. When you have kids, whatever they want to be you love them," she said. "If that's your dream, you're going to pursue it. I'm incredibly happy for him."

She recalled viewing his high school plays where familiar items would appear onstage.

"I was sitting in the audience and I remember some girls came out wearing my dresses," laughed Janki-Bingham. "Sometimes he took our furniture or our carpet to do his plays."

Described as a polite, kind and always eager student, Janki has agreed to take time out of his visit to talk to kids at the Victoria school of performing and visual arts, as well as speak at McKernan elementary-junior high school's awards ceremony on June 29.

"He always worked in school and did very well. He was very bright and very creative," said Lois Lonergan, Janki's former Grade 6 teacher, who asked him to speak at McKernan. "I think it's so important other kids learn about someone who pursued a dream and achieved it."

As expected, landing roles in Alberta was easier than New York, Janki said. But it wasn't just being a small-city boy competing in the big time that hampered his efforts.

"Being an actor of color, it's very, very tough. I've been very fortunate to get as many jobs as I have," said Janki, whose parents are from Guyana.

It's the reason the artist, who still auditions nearly every day, has never had an agent in New York.

"I've really had to put myself out there and convince a lot of directors to cast me, because a lot of times they say, 'Well, you just don't look right.' You're not the right color basically," he said, adding things are slowly improving. "A lot of agents are in it for the money and they're worried I won't make them money."

Janki, who still thinks of Edmonton as home, hasn't forgotten his roots.

"I'm a Canadian boy at heart," he said, but that doesn't mean he expects to leave the city where he's found fame. "I'll probably always stay in New York. I love it."

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