Robin Breon

Black theatre in Canada has a presence dating back to 1849 and perhaps further. The profile of organizations and personalities detailed in this article shows the growth of this movement since the mid-nineteenth century, as well as problems and obstacles encountered by visible minorities in their struggle to enter the mainstream of Canadian cultural life.

La contribution des Noirs au théâtre canadien remonte à 1849, et peut-être même plus loin. Ce survol des organismes et des individus qui contribuèrent à ce théâtre dépeint son évolution depuis le milieu du XIXe siècle, tout en soulignant les problèmes et les obstacles qu'encontrèrent les minorités 'visibles' dans leur lutte pour appartenir à une commune culture canadienne.

The growth and development of Black theatre in Canada represent a unique contribution to the cultural and artistic heritage of this country. From the earliest days of the Underground Railroad movement that helped establish communities such as Amherstburg, Dresden, North Buxton, and Chatham in southern Ontario, Black Canadians have aspired to careers in the performing arts. Like most artists, their struggle has not been an easy one, but the legacy of their contribution endures, and Canada's cultural heritage and national character are enriched because of it.

The study of Canada's Black theatre is impossible without attention to cultural institutions outside the performing arts, such as the Black church. It would be difficult to number the many actors, singers, musicians and dancers who had their first taste of performance by way of the local church. The reason for this is that although it was by nature primarily a religious institution it was also by way of practical reality a social institution that served a wide variety of purposes. In The Afri-Canadian Church: A Stabilizer, Dorothy Shadd Shreve quotes theologian C. Eric Lincoln as saying: '...religion was the organizing principle around which life was structured. [The] church was [the] school, [the] forum, [the] political arena, [the] social club, [the] art gallery, [the] conservatory of music. It was lyceum and gymnasium as well as sanctum sanctorum.'

She goes on to state that, on the other side of the coin, the church could also act as the agent through which blacks could be most easily manipulated or indoctrinated for the benefit of the slave owner. 'On the plantation, the religion taught was liberally sprinkled with the "duties of Christian slaves". They were led to believe that slavery had divine sanction and that insolence was as much an offence against God as against the temporal master. As a result, Christian slaves were believed to be more docile than non-Christian ones and had a higher market value.'1

Although the Negro people of this period were very susceptible to the consolations promised by the church, they also understood its more liberating aspects. They chose Bible stories that were analogous with the history of their own slave existence and began to act them out in simple pageants, similar in ways, perhaps, to the early medieval plays. They drew from these stories faith in the coming retribution for their oppressors and surety in the triumph of truth and justice. One of the most sublime and poetic manifestations of this form of cultural expression was of course the Negro spiritual which combined religious, social and political aspirations into one moving musical statement. Paul Robeson, the great Afro-American singer, actor and scholar - who, incidentally, enjoyed a very special relationship with Canada during his lifetime - is quoted as saying that, 'Spirituals reflected all the manifestations of the Negro people's social life. Therefore, the song "Go Down Moses', for example, far from being a religious hymn, is rather an impassioned call to the struggle for the liberation of the Negro people.' 2

Outside of the church, among the earliest recorded Black theatrical performances in Canada were those by The Toronto Coloured Young Men's Amateur Theatrical Society. An advertisement in the Toronto-Mirror (9 February 1849), noted that the group would perform for three nights on 20, 21 and 22 February, and that they would be presenting Venice Preserved by Thomas Otway (1652-1685) along with selected scenes from Shakespeare. Although the advertisement stated that this was the organization's second Toronto appearance, no record of their first performance has yet been found.

If the Toronto Coloured Young Men's Amateur Theatrical Society chose to present a Restoration tragedy along with scenes from Shakespeare as representative of the kind of dramatic fare that would be entertaining and presumably highlight the talents of the various actors, it is also interesting to note during this same period the type of theatrical activity the Black community was fighting vehemently against. On four separate occasions in 1840, 1841,1842, and 1843, members of the Black community petitioned the mayor's office to restrict the presentation of traveling minstrel shows which came up from the U.S. and toured widely in Canada. These crude and vulgar presentations were advertised as portraying 'the life of the Negro in song and dance.' In truth they were base and dehumanizing depictions that exploited every racist stereotype of the period. During this pre-American Civil War period, the minstrel show was very popular with the pro-slavery lobby because it justified the South's most 'peculiar institution'. Although there were some Black minstrels who performed in these shows, the overwhelming majority of the actors were white who would 'black up' with burnt cork or greasepaint and proceed to swagger across the stage in the grossest form of caricature and mimicry. Even Toronto had its 'burnt cork' specialists, the most famous being 'Cool' Burgess who enjoyed a North American reputation. 3

Although Black theatrical organizations seem to be few and far between during this early period, it is interesting to note the lives of several Black Canadians who excelled in theatre and the field of popular entertainment during the last half of the nineteenth century and into the beginning of the twentieth century. One such example is the remarkable Canadian-born actor Richard B. Harrison.

Harrison was born in Ontario in 1864, the son of fugitive slaves who had fled the United States. As a boy he was noted for his poetry recitations for which he won prizes at school. He liked going to the theatre and would save up his earnings as a newspaper delivery boy in order to buy tickets. When he was seventeen, his father died and as the eldest child he took on the responsibility of family provider. He began working in hotels in Windsor and then moved to Detroit where he enrolled in the Detroit Training School of Art. He graduated from the school in 1887. In his excellent book Shakespeare in Sable, A History of BIack Shakespearean Actors, Errol Hill informs us that Harrison became a lecturer/performer with the Lyceum Bureau of Los Angeles and went on to the touring circuit. His repertoire - fully committed to memory - included narrative poems, dialect pieces and whole plays by Shakespeare in which he acted every role. Of this period in his life, which took him on tour across the southern states, Canada, and Mexico, Harrison recorded in his diary:

The strangest thing about it all is not that I dared to do it, but that I got audiences of my own race and kept them awake while doing Shakespeare - taking all the parts, moving from side to side of the stage or hall without letting people see that I was moving, holding them without any let-ups between bits of dialogue. I did that for twenty years all over this country, keeping at the last, seven plays and more than one hundred recitations in my mind. 4

His herculean efforts finally paid off when he was cast as De Lawd in Marc Connelly's Pulitzer Prize winning all Black play, The Green Pastures, which played to over two million patrons for 1,657 performances on Broadway and on tour. He was sixty-five years old when cast and never missed a performance. The only thing that stopped him in 1935 was poor health aggravated by exhaustion. Harrison often expressed his wish to play Shakespeare on the Broadway stage but he was never offered a chance to do so. Although he was never given the opportunity to do Shakespeare on Broadway - it may have been some small consolation that he did die playing God.

While Richard B. Harrison was making his contribution to the legitimate stage, several other black Canadians from this same region of southwestern Ontario were becoming prominent in the field of popular entertainment on the musical stages across North America. Among them was Amherstburg-born Shelton Brooks whose father, the Rev. Peter Brooks, was for a time the pastor of the Baptist Church in North Buxton. Brooks was a musician/composer best remembered for songs such as 'Dark Town Strutter's Ball' along with several others including 'Some of These Days', the song that made the 'Red Hot Mama', Sophie Tucker, famous. Shelton Brooks played the stages of vaudeville for years and in 1922 went to Europe with Josephine Baker and Florence Mills, spending time in Paris and the U.K. He appeared on the New York stage with notables such as Ted Lewis, Jack Benny and Sophie Tucker. In 1939, he moved to Los Angeles where he appeared in several black films with Herb Jeffries and Dorothy Dandrige, among others.

The 1920's and 30's brought with it numerous forms of artistic growth and expression in the black community. Perhaps, what we could call the first truly professional Black theatre in Canada, The Negro Theatre Guild, emerged in Montreal in the early 1940's. As I have already tried to point out historically, it was probably not by accident that the organization was founded in the basement of the Union United Church.

Program notes from an early production state that: 'The Negro Theatre Guild was formed in 1941 by a group of young members from the community, whose creative impulse craved expression. The theatre seemed both a happy and a natural medium, providing scope for a variety of talents, yet demanding group cooperation.' A press release from the Guild published in the Montreal Star helps outline the mandate of the organization: 'To utilize the enthusiasm, sincerity and native talent of colored youth, in the presentation of plays of social value, is the principal aim of our organization. We feel that in the common struggle against fascism and Hitlerism, the Negro has not only his blood and his labor to contribute, but has a distinct cultural contribution to make.' 5

Appropriately enough - and carrying on in the tradition of Richard B. Harrison - the Guild's first production was a mounting of Marc Connelly's play, The Green Pastures, featuring Charles Horrace Phillips in the lead role and directed by Don Haldane, the first Canadian graduate of the Yale School of Drama. Presented at His Majesty's Theatre in May 1942, the production was received warmly. Herbert Whittaker's review in the Montreal Gazette noted the extraordinary effort that was required to mount the show with its large cast, including a choir and musicians. Of Mr. Phillips in the leading role Mr. Whittaker stated: 'Any account of the performance must include mention of Horace Phillips as De Lawd. It is a tremendous part in physical and emotional demands as well as religious implication, but Mr. Phillips never let it down. He played with consistent sincerity and perfect simplicity.' 6

World War II brought with it a four year hiatus for the Guild. However, in 1946 the group made a strong comeback with the presentation of two one-act plays, Hello Out There by William Saroyan and Alfred Krymborg's America, America. The following year saw Elsie Salomon's spectacularly choreographed version of The Congo followed by an impressive rendering of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones presented at the Montreal Repertory Theatre Playhouse on Guy Street. This production was under the direction of Beatrice MacLeod and choreographed also by Elsie Salomon.

Again the progress of The Negro Theatre Guild was documented by Mr. Whittaker's review of the production for the Gazette. He called it 'easily one of the most admirable productions of the season' and one that 'reveals dramatically and visually the full force of this unique work.' This production also marked the emergence of a major Canadian talent in the person of Percy Rodrigues as the Emperor, Brutus Jones. Mr. Whittaker went on to note that: 'No amount of understanding and imagination on the part of the directors would be enough if there was not an actor available to measure up to the magnificent role of the Emperor. In Percy Rodrigues, the Guild is fortunate enough to have found one.' 7 Herbert Whittaker's colleague Sydney Johnson, drama critic for the Montreal Daily Star, concurred calling the production 'an electrifying evening of theatre' and Mr. Rodrigues 'magnificent ... truly a superb performance.' 8 The production was remounted in February 1949, again with Mr. Rodrigues in the title role and in the spring of that year was one of the winners at the Dominion Drama Festival.

The Negro Theatre Guild continued through the 1950's, 60's and into the early 70's later changing its name to the Negro Theatre Arts Club of Montreal. Productions included Kurt Weill's folk opera Down in the Valley, original plays such as The Plea of Orpheus and Little Tropics, Pirandello's The Vise, The Black Judges (an adaptation of Gratien Gélinas' Hier les enfants dansaient), and others. Today the Black Theatre Workshop of Montreal continues in the pioneering tradition established by the Negro Theatre Guild in that city almost sixty years ago.

The Black theatre movement in Canada continued to play an important role during that very vibrant period in Canadian theatre history which began in the early 1970's. The wave of West Indian immigration that began in the mid-60's brought with it new artistic and cultural impulses that soon blended into the Black diaspora in Canada. In Toronto, one young black woman from Trinidad embarked upon the difficult journey of training to become an actress.

Vera Cudjoe studied theatre and broadcasting at Ryerson and took theatre and acting classes from different instructors. Although originally trained as a registered nurse in England, Ms. Cudjoe wanted very much to pursue a career in the theatre. She soon found out that acting is a very competitive profession with never enough work to go around and for a black woman the road was especially tough going. In order to open up more opportunities for Black actors, Cudjoe decided to form a Black theatre troupe. In 1973, with organizational help from Ed Smith who teaches Afro-American Studies at the University of Buffalo, Black Theatre Canada was founded and officially launched. The first production was a play entitled Who's Got His Own by Ron Milner and directed by Smith. The play was presented for one night only to an enthusiastic audience at the Unitarian Church on St. Clair Avenue W. in Toronto. The warm response encouraged Cudjoe to pursue the theatre as a career.

During this period a number of individuals were active in setting up the framework under which the new company would operate. June Faulkner (now general manager of Young People's Theatre) assisted with the technicalities of incorporating the company and forming a board of directors. The first board was composed of, among others, novelist Austin Clark, choreographer Len Gibson and Alderman Ying Hope. Theatre artists in the Black community who came forward to lend assistance included Jeff Henry, actor and professor with York University's Theatre Arts Department; Daniel Cauldieron, writer, director and former associate producer of MTV's Black World television program; Len Gibson, dancer, choreographer and founder-director of his own school; Amah Harris, then a recent graduate of the University of Windsor's theatre program who was interested in children's theatre and who would also found her own company in future years; and a number of others.

From the outset the mandate and focus of Black Theatre Canada was clear. In fact it really did not differ greatly in substance from the mandate established over a half century before by those pioneering artists of the Negro Theatre Guild of Montreal; that is, to establish a platform for the expression of Black culture in Canada and to create an environment that could offer training to the many talented actors, performers, writers, and directors who came from the Black community. It was the hope of the founders that theatre would allow them not only to share their cultural heritage with the Canadian mainstream, but also to encourage professional development to young artists who would then find themselves better prepared to compete in the arts/entertainment fields of theatre, television, radio and film. To name the artists - Black and white - who have touched base with Black Theatre Canada at some point in their careers would be too lengthy for this document, but among them are: Arlene Duncan, Marvin Ishmael, Leon Bibb, Jackie Richardson, Michael Danso, Joe Sealy, Cecile Frenette, Tom Butler, Phil Aiken, Dennis Simpson, Jim Plaxton, Diane Brathwaite, Jeff Jones, Linda Armstrong, Emerita Emerencia and many, many others. A number of these individuals have stayed in the theatre and have gone on to develop successful careers. Others have gone on to work in community and social work, education, business and politics.

The body of work produced by this organization over the last fifteen years is also quite substantial. It is further to the everlasting credit of B.T.C. that these theatre productions, school tours, educational materials, numerous workshops and classes were produced with the most minimal amount of government and private support. Indeed, the organization has always been precariously financed and chronically underfunded by government agencies. However, in spite of this handicap their contributions have been steady, on-going and professional in quality.

Again it is not possible here in such a short space to begin to enumerate, let alone discuss the significance of various projects at different times. That will be the business of a more lengthy paper, but I would like to refer to a few highlights from the past fifteen years.

In the area of young people's theatre, important work was initiated by Amah Harris and Daniel Cauldieron. Ten years ago, Ms. Harris began work on her cycle of plays for young people based on the Anansi African folktales. These plays were some of the very first multi-racial, cross-cultural 'learning plays' to enter the Metro-Toronto school system playing to thousands of elementary students. Their popularity was so great that the company was asked to take them to Detroit to participate in the Afro-American Ethnic Festival where they played to an additional 35,000 children in 1979.

Also in this category is a play entitled A Few Things About Us, by Daniel Cauldieron a multi-media musical foray into the 'new' multicultural Toronto that had begun to flower so brilliantly over the past twenty years. This productionwas followed by More About Me, a play that emphasized the sharing of one's culture and the nature of racial discrimination. Also in the area of theatre for young people was Ed Smith's production of Staggerlee based on the legend of the Black cowboy by the same name.

For the adult Toronto theatre-goer there have been numerous productions over the years that have introduced new plays and playwrights as well as the classics. The Jamaican playwright Trevor Rhone (The Harder They Come, Smile Orange) was introduced to Canadian audiences by Black Theatre Canada in the mid-seventies. His production of Scbools Out was a popular success and was later moved to the St. Lawrence Centre for a special one-week run. In 1979 Rhone mounted a play entitled Story Oh in a workshop production that later became the basis for his play Old Story Time, also a great success throughout the Caribbean and the U.K.

Other Caribbean artists who were given an opportunity to perform in Canada under the auspices of Black Theatre Canada included Jamaican folklorist Louise Bennet and Trinidadian comedian Paul Keens Douglas who collaborated in a wonderful evening entitled Miss Lou Meets Tim Tim. Also in this same series of performances were Guyanese Ken Corsbie and Marc Mathews who combined their political barbs, social comment and caustic comedy into a production entitled Dem Two in Canada.

Children's theatre and popular drama were not the only areas of engagement for the theatre over the years. BTC also felt an obligation and a responsibility to present the classics - both Black and White. Lorraine's Hansberry's bench mark play A Raisin in the Sun, opened in New York in 1958 and directed by Lloyd Richards, could now be classified as a play that has entered the repertory of classical Black drama. The play had not been given a Canadian production in Toronto when Vera Cudjoe chose to do it in 1978. The production featured Jackie Richardson and Arlene Duncan and was directed by Bobby Ghisays from Jamaica. It was a critical as well as a popular success. Similarly the decision to adapt Shakespeare's A Midsummer Night's Dream and place it in a Caribbean setting was done with a respect and understanding for the role classical theatre plays in our society. Far from bowdlerizing the script, Azra Francis who directed the production and who is a member of the Drama Department at the University of Windsor, set about to emphasize the cross-cultural potential inherent in the play without changing one word. The production received a Dora Mavor Moore Award in the category of Innovation and Artistic Excellence and was an historic breakthrough in the area of non-traditional and color-blind casting which is a topic of increasing concern among Canadian theatre directors and university drama departments.

The company has also not failed in its obligation to develop and present new Canadian plays over the years. In addition to the children's plays previously mentioned, a short list would include: Layers by Vilbert Cambridge, Changes by Peter Robinson, the collectively written Bathurst Street, One More Stop on the Freedom Train by Leon Bibb with musical direction by Joe Sealy, and The African Roscius (Being the Life and Times of Ira Aldridge) by Robin Breon.

In looking at the wide diaspora that makes up the cultural heritage of Black people's artistic voice throughout the world, a person must note that Black Theatre Canada has consistently been on the cutting edge of this movement in Canada. Two years ago the theatre helped to initiate and organize the Arts Against Apartheid Festival which brought to Toronto Archbishop Desmond Tutu from South Africa and international human rights activist Harry Belafonte. As part of their contribution to the festival BTC presented the play Under Exposure by Lisa Evans, a play that particularly emphasizes the women's struggle against apartheid in South Africa.

It should be clear at this point that my research has barely begun, relatively speaking, and that little other research has been carried out so far on Black theatre in Canada. Because of that, and my close association with Black Theatre Canada as administrative director and co-producer from 1981 through 1987, I have chosen to focus on only a small part of the history of Black theatre in Canada. There are additional organizations with parallel historical developments that also deserve mentioning; among them are Jeff Henry and the founding of Theatre Fountainhead in Toronto, Clarence Bain's work with Black Theatre Workshop in Montreal, the Black People's Cultural Centre of Halifax. But even this selects only three. There are numerous other areas where research can be done.

In conclusion, it is my feeling that a paper on this topic would not be complete without some reference to the status of Black theatre artists in Canada today. Our society is increasingly multi-racial in its composition, and the performing arts in this country should not fail to reflect that fact. We need to provide greater opportunities for visible minorities in this country to participate in the mainstream of Canadian cultural and artistic life. In the next few months, the Canadian Actor's Equity Association has announced that it will sponsor a national symposium on the topic of non-traditional and cross-cultural casting in the theatre. The University of Guelph was one of the first in this country to announce to the student body that they have officially adopted the policy of color-blind casting in an effort to encourage visible minority participation in the theatre program there. These are steps in the right direction but there is more that can be done.

We should recognize that inclusion of visible minorities within the various Canadian theatres at all levels of production including administrative, artistic, and technical areas should be looked upon as a unique opportunity to enrich our cultural heritage and to enable the theatre to offer a true reflection of Canadian society. The results will include an expansion of the appeal of cultural institutions and a broadening of the audience base; needless to say for those with a practical mind: an increase in box office revenue.

To further this end, there is also a need to implement some kind of affirmative action program throughout the theatre arts industry. Institutions such as the Stratford and Shaw Festivals should be especially sensitive to the training and nurturing of talented actors and stage people who are from visible minorities. In addition, there should be some visible minority representation on the various arts councils and agencies (including the Ontario Arts Council and the Canada Council) that are so important in the area of funding and cultural policy making. Finally, special attention and support should be given to those organizations that have consistently provided a platform for the cultural expression of visible minorities in Canada. If I might use as an example the location where I work, hence with which I am most familiar, the various councils of Metropolitan Toronto and the Province of Ontario Government should be called upon to assist in providing proper housing for such organizations in the same substantial way they have come forward for numerous other artistic groups and social service institutions.

The history of theatre in Canada has been enhanced from its earliest beginnings by the contributions made by Black artists. With fair and equitable support and encouragement, this important segment of our society will continue to flourish and make many additional contributions in the years ahead.



Robin Breon

The following individuals have been extremely helpful in my research: Herbert Whittaker, drama critic emeritus, Globe and Mail; Sydney Johnson, drama critic emeritus, Montreal Daily Star, Sylvia Warner of Montreal; Vera Cudjoe, founder and executive director of Black Theatre Canada; Azra Francis, professor of drama, University of Windsor; and Anton Wagner, associate editor of the World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre.

1 DOROTHY SHAD SHREVE, The Afri-Canadian Church: A Stabilizer, Jordan Station: Paideia Press, 1983, p 40
Return to article

2 PHILLIP S. FONER, ed, Paul Robeson Speaks, Writings, Speeches, Interviews (1918-1974), Brunner/Mazel, p 215
Return to article

3 PATRICK B O'NEILL, A History of Theatrical Activity in Toronto, Canada, from its Beginnings to 1858, Phd thesis, Louisiana State University, 1973, pp 43, 110. Colin 'Cool' Burgess is the subject of a series of articles in the Toronto Evening Telegram which have been reprinted in a pamphlet, a copy of which is held in the theatre collection of the Metropolitan Toronto Library.
Return to article

4 ERROL HILL, Shakespeare in Sable, A History of Black Shakespearean Actors, University of Massachusetts Press, 1984, pp 88-9
Return to article

5 S. MORGAN POWELL, Montreal Daily Star 28 Feb 1942 p?
Return to article

6 Montreal Gazette 8 May 1942 p 2
Return to article

7 Montreal Gazette 12 Apr 1948 p 6
Return to article

8 Montreal Daily Star Apr 1948 ??
Return to article