Sunday July 16, 2017

Rita Deverell fought her way on stage - and 50 years later, she's still fighting

Rita Deverell at home in Horseshoe Valley, 2015

Rita Deverell at home in Horseshoe Valley, 2015

Listen to Full Episode 12:10

Rita Deverell grew up in Texas at a time when "separate but equal" was the prevailing law and black people were forbidden from mixing with whites. As an eight-year-old in 1953, Rita knew she wanted to be an actor but getting access to the same caliber of acting teachers and opportunities as white kids her age was far beyond her reach. That is, until one day, years later in high school, an all-white acting troupe came to her school and Rita decided she'd had enough.

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Pride Magazine cover, 1994, with a feature on Rita

"A group of young people from the Alley Theater, which is a very distinguished professional theatre in Houston, came to my all-segregated high school and I realized that I could not be in the same drama classes that they were in," recalls Rita.  

Sitting and watching a group of white people perform at her all-black school — all the while knowing she could never set foot in their school — awoke in Rita a need to speak up. Her mother encouraged her to write a letter to the theatre company pointing out the injustice.

That letter, and the response it brought, changed the course of Rita's life.

The company invited her to volunteer and went on to train her as an actor.

Rita Deverell quote graphic

Florence James: influence and inspiration

Florence James was an American theatre director and teacher who had established two theatre companies with her husband in the 1930s in Seattle, Washington.

She fled to Canada during the McCarthy era after her husband passed away and her theatre company was expropriated by the government.

Rita Deverell met Florence James at Regina's Globe Theatre which Florence helped found and where Rita worked as an actor.

Rita has written a play about Florence James and is currently working on a book about Florence and other "American Refugees" in Canada.

Florence James in 1916

Florence James, 1916

"I spent every weekend and every evening of my last two years in high school getting the best drama education you could ever imagine from the real theatre, instead of the the kiddy classes." 

Rita's work with the Alley Theater enabled her to get a full scholarship to acting school in New York and, to what she hoped, would be a long successful run doing the thing she loved.

But life has a funny way of going off script.

Rita moved to Canada and in the beginning, the roles she got were satisfying and plentiful. But a few years in, work became more and more scarce. Gigs got shorter and shorter and Rita's relationship with the theatre eventually petered out.

She calls acting a "nearly impossible" job and, with bills to pay, she turned her attention to other interests. Rita moved into broadcasting and writing, and in her later years became a scholar and a teacher. But her love of the theatre never left her and Rita found it impossible to stay away.

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Rita on the cover of TV Times, 1993

Decades after her last acting job, Rita decided to give the theatre one more shot. An older woman, she figured get work would be a challenge, but in the same spirit that motivated her to as an eight-year-old girl, Rita committed to a bold idea that would serve her aspirations. 

"Who is going to hire a 60-year-old woman who hasn't been [acting] in 30 years? The answer is nobody… so maybe I'd better make my own work."

Rita went on to write and perform the one-woman show Smoked Glass Ceiling, and has since followed with five other plays. She continues with her craft to this day. 

"I've still never been hired by the biggest companies, and I don't think I will be! That's one of those things you eventually have to stop worrying about... If you can create your own work, and you can find people to create with you — you have a wonderful time."

About the producer

Naheed Mustafa

Naheed Mustafa

Naheed Mustafa is an award-winning producer, writer, and broadcaster. She began her career as a freelance reporter when she left Canada and moved to Pakistan where she worked for both local English language media and newspapers back home. After coming back to Canada, Naheed added broadcasting to her list of media platforms and became a regular documentary contributor at CBC Radio. Alongside documentary, Naheed has also worked as a producer for a variety of news and current affairs programs at CBC Radio including Dispatches, As It Happens, The Current, and Ideas. She will spend the upcoming year as a William Southam Journalism Fellow at Massey College, University of Toronto as the CBC/Radio-Canada fellow.