31 Black Canadian female playwrights you need to know
As a theatre lover and a playwright, Amanda Parris desperately wants to see more of their works on stage
Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
Theatre is an inherently ephemeral art form. If a play is never remounted or never published, it is destined to exist in the memories of those who witnessed its original production. It's a fact that makes theatre one of the most magical of artistic mediums — but it also gives it the potential to be the most tragic.
The first time I watched ahdri zhina mandiela's critically important 1997 documentary on/black/stage women, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of awe and sadness. It is a rare and precious time capsule, filled with the testimonies of almost 30 Black theatre artists, women who were trying to make a living in Toronto.
In the film, mandiela captures a thriving Black female theatre scene. We meet playwrights and lighting designers, performance artists and community educators, puppeteers and theatre collectives. The first time I watched the doc, I felt an overwhelming sense of FOMO. The artists talk about a wide range of productions they'd worked on, and I had never read any of their plays or seen any of their works on the stage. The question of why has haunted me ever since.
I was inspired to begin writing for the theatre because that was where I saw Black Canadian women receiving — and building — platforms for their dramatic stories. Their marked absence in film and television only made their work in theatre all the more intriguing and powerful. I never attended theatre school, but I began to study the crafts of acting and writing through community theatre programs and residencies run and created by Black women. At the time, the world that mandiela captured in her documentary was still thriving, growing with each generation in a Black theatre culture that was grounded in the knowledge that we have to pull others up as we climb.
Progress is slow, but when I reflect on the challenges that the women in the documentary spoke about 23 years ago, I do see evidence of small shifts and changes. In August of this year, when Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu takes her post as the new artistic director of Obsidian Theatre, she'll be the third Black woman after Weyni Mengesha (Soulpepper) and Tanisha Taitt (Cahoots) to hold the top creative position at a Toronto theatre company. This week, writer/director Natasha Adiyana Morris opens her debut play in Toronto, The Negroes Are Congregating. Andrea Scott's Controlled Damage just closed in Halifax, and Marcia Johnson's Serving Elizabeth recently finished a run in Kamloops, B.C.
But in spite of this momentum, there is something that continues to temper my excitement. There's very little digital documentation of the women who introduced me to theatre, and over the years, I've become increasingly perturbed by this observation. Google searches produce little to no evidence of the many productions, programs and companies that predated the internet era. And because so few plays have been published, and even fewer have been remounted, these works — and these women — are in danger of disappearing from memory.
In a small attempt to rectify this, I've crafted a list of 31 Black Canadian women playwrights. This list is not comprehensive, but it does reveal a pattern: many of these artists have had to wear multiple hats, and some have had to build their own platforms to show their work.
There's a moment in on/black/stage/women where the actress Amah Harris recounts something legendary director Vera Cudjoe once told her: "The situation in Canada is that it's a pioneering situation. People can't just walk into stuff — they have to develop it. They have to build it for themselves."
In my small attempt to move us past pioneering, I want to encourage audiences to learn these names. I want educators to buy and teach their published plays. And perhaps most importantly, as a theatre lover and creator, I desperately want companies to remount their works.
This list is in alphabetical order.
Playwright, librettist and producer Kanika Ambrose has been working steadily in the theatre for years. Before focusing on writing and producing, she was a sought-after performer, contributing to a few of the award-winning plays listed below. Since then, she has developed several plays and has also worked in the world of opera.
Key works: Reception, our place, Anansi and the Great Light (created with composer Nick DiBeradino and the students of Girard College)
Without Trey Anthony, it's no exaggeration to say that I wouldn't be writing for the theatre. A playwright, comedian, actress and television writer, Anthony's 'da kink in my hair made history when it became the first Canadian show to play at Mirvish's Princess of Wales Theatre. The production helped launch the careers of numerous notable Black female artists — including Weyni Mengesha, d'bi.young anitafrika and Ngozi Paul — and inspired a lot more who watched them from the audience.
Key works: 'da kink in my hair, I Am Not a Dinner Mint (co-created with Rachel Lea-Rickards) How Black Mothers Say I Love You
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard
A playwright, director, MC and dramaturge, Donna-Michelle St. Bernard is one of the most prolific creators in Canadian theatre today. I'm not exaggerating. Her body of work is huge and still growing — as are her accolades, which include being a two-time nominee for the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama. She's worked with companies including New Harlem Productions, Nightwood Theatre and Native Earth Performing Arts.
Key works: Gas Girls, Salome's Clothes, Give It Up, Cake, A Man A Fish, Sound of the Beast, The House You Build, Dark Love, The First Stone, Roominhouse
Playwright, producer, director and podcaster (The Secret Life of Canada), Leah-Simone Bowen is a formidable talent with a deep passion for theatre. She's done residencies at Stratford, Cahoots Theatre Company and Playwrights Workshop Montreal. A former artistic producer at Obsidian Theatre, Bowen brings a rich and varied experience to the page and the stage. Plus, she has a really great sense of humour.
Key works: Code Word: Time, The Hallway, The Flood, Nowheresville, The Postman, Treemonisha (written by Scott Joplin, book and libretto adapted by Bowen)
Playwright, director and composer Nicole Brooks has a vast and ambitious dramatic vision and a voice that can immediately trigger goosebumps (in the best way possible). For more than a decade, her powerful production Obeah Opera has won awards and critical acclaim. Brooks's journey in telling the story of Tituba, the enslaved woman tried at the Salem Witch Trials, has been breathtaking to witness.
Key work: Obeah Opera
If you do a Google search on Diana Braithwaite today, you'd find out that she's an electric blues singer, songwriter and screenwriter. But thanks to the documentary on/black/stage/women, I learned that she was also a prolific playwright in the '80s and '90s. In the film, actors gush about Braithwaite's writing style, and her peers speak with awe and admiration for her talent. I've never seen any of her productions, which means...they should be remounted, ASAP.
Key works: Dear Cherry, Remember the Ginger Wine, Nutshells, The Wonder Quartet (The Wonder of Man: A Black Woman's Trip Through the Galaxy; Martha and Elvira; Do Not Adjust Your Set; Time to Forget)
Wendy "Motion" Brathwaite
A playwright, screenwriter, poet and MC, Motion moves between the stage, screen and recording studio — a true Renaissance woman who creates by any means necessary. Her expertise in multiple worlds has enabled her to create works that bridge mediums. Music is an integral component for each of her plays, and drama is an indelible part of each of her musical performances. In the past year, Motion has been focusing her efforts on creating stories for the screen, but her collection of award-winning theatrical works (one of which I starred in) remains impressively diverse and compelling.
Key works: 4our Woman, Aneemah's Spot, Nightmare Dream, Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape (co-created with DJ L'Oqenz)
Lisa Codrington may be familiar to TV audiences (Letterkenny, Anne with an E) but she should also be known for her work as a brilliant playwright. Her play Cast Iron was a one-woman show performed by the legendary Alison Sealy-Smith in 2005. (At one point, Sealy-Smith also served as dramaturge on the show.) Cast Iron was nominated for the 2006 Governor General's Literary Award for Drama. Codrington is a prolific writer who has continued to craft fascinating stories for the stage, many of which (thankfully) have been published.
Key works: Cast Iron, The Aftermath, The Colony, Up the Garden Path, The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God
Raven Dauda is one of the hardest-working actresses in the business, appearing on TV series including Utopia Falls and Star Trek: Discovery. But a few years ago, she decided to use her talents to tell a personal story, and in 2018 she presented that work to the world. Dauda's one-person play Addicted saw her talents on full display as she occupied multiple characters. (She won a 2018 Dora Award for the performance.) Although I love seeing her onscreen, I hope she chooses to pick up the pen again.
Key work: Addicted
A brilliant playwright, director, actor, dramaturge and teacher, Audrey Dwyer is one of those formidable multi-hyphenates who seems to have theatre running in their blood. Currently working as the associate artistic director at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, Dwyer has also mentored numerous emerging artists over the years. Her play Calpurnia (which she also directed in 2018) was selected by fu-GEN Theatre for their list of 49 groundbreaking plays written by women of colour ("The 49").
Key work: Calpurnia
Sedina Fiati is a playwright, performer and producer who works on the stage and screen — and sometimes also brings theatre to the street. Fiati frequently finds ways to bridge art-making and activism in powerful and accessible ways, sparking conversations on everything from increased representation to transformative justice.
Key works: Last Dance, 22, Switch: The Village (co-created with Robin Akimbo, Annapurna Malla, Ty Sloane and Naty Tremblay)
The late Lorena Gale was a playwright, actress and director who worked in both film and television. She was the artistic director for Montreal's Black Theatre Workshop and won numerous awards for both her acting and her writing. Her play Angélique was published 20 years ago and remains one of the most vital theatrical productions on Black Canadian history.
Key works: Angélique and Je me souviens
A playwright, poet and author of children's literature, Shauntay Grant is absolutely right when she identifies herself as a storyteller. Halifax's third poet laureate, Grant's accolades are plentiful. Her play The Bridge opened last year to wide critical acclaim.
Key works: The Bridge, Steal Away Home
Playwright, producer, director, actress, composer, choreographer and educator, Amah Harris has carved a unique path in the worlds of education and theatre, creating works specifically made for children. She's had a formidable creative career as co-director of the legendary Black Theatre Canada (which closed in the '80s) and as the founder of Theatre in the Rough. Harris's work has toured Canada, the U.S. and South Africa.
Key works: Anansi Tales, Freedom Ways
A playwright and actor, Marcia Johnson is a prolific creator with a number of works under her belt. In 2008 alone, three of her plays had world premieres. Her latest, Serving Elizabeth premiered last month at Western Canada Theatre in Kamloops, B.C. (Johnson was inspired to write the show after watching an episode of The Crown.)
Key works: Perfect on Paper, Binti's Journey, Courting Johanna, Late, Serving Elizabeth
Djennie Laguerre may be known to Canadian audiences as an actor, but what may be lesser known is her more recent exploration of playwriting. Her play Rendez-vous with Home won the Summerworks Spotlight Award (2008) and her collaborative work with the collective Les Héritières de Toto B has led to even more creations.
Key works: Rendez-vous with Home, Espoir/Espwa (with Les Héritières de Toto B).
Sharon Lewis and Maxine Bailey
Sharon Lewis and Maxine Bailey have both carved extraordinary individual careers in the film and television industries, but in the early '90s these two women came together to craft a play called Sistahs which changed the Canadian theatre game forever. It marked both women's playwriting debut and the launch of their company Sugar 'n' Spice Productions. Sistahs was a play that deliberately wanted to shift the focus away from African-American narratives and explore the contemporary experiences of Black women in Canada. The experiment paid off: Sistahs was a critically acclaimed hit.
Key work: Sistahs
ahdri zhina mandiela
There is an entire generation of Black female theatre creators — myself included — who owe so much of their training to the mentorship of Ms. mandiela. A playwright, dub poet, director and producer, she is the founder of b current performing arts which birthed the legendary "raiZ'n" training program (alumni include d'bi.young anitafrika, Meghan Swaby and Sedina Fiati) and the rock.paper.sistahz festival. Mandiela also created a bridge between dub poetry and the theatrical world with her rhythmic and abstract creations.
Key works: dark diaspora...in dub: a dub theatre piece, who knew grannie: a dub aria
Natasha Adiyana Morris
Natasha Adiyana Morris has made her mark on the Toronto theatre scene by creating a vital platform for other Black emerging playwrights through her organization Piece of Mine Arts. Through their annual festival and programs dedicated to Black playwrights, it's enabled many artists to test out new material (including me). Her own writing balances fierce political observations with hilarious wit and a signature rhythm. Morris's play The Negroes Are Congregating is on stage in Toronto now.
Key works: The Negroes Are Congregating, half n' half
Although widely known as an extraordinarily talented actress and producer, Ngozi Paul emerged as a playwright in 2015. Her critically acclaimed play The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely scored six Dora Award nominations and a win for Outstanding New Play. Paul arrived as a vital voice in the Canadian theatre scene and I for one can't wait to see what she cooks up next.
Key work: The Emancipation of Ms. Lovely
M. NourbeSe Philip
Penetrative insight, undeniable talent and powerful intellect like M. NourbeSe Philip's only comes around once in a generation. She's a playwright, poet, novelist, essayist and short story writer who has won a dizzying array of awards and distinctions, including her most recent 2020 Pen/Nabokov Award for International Literature. Her plays often piercingly examine political moments that so often get swept under the rug.
Key works: Coups and Calypsos, Harriet's Daughter, The Redemption of Al Bumen (A Morality Play)
Makambe K. Simamba
Makambe K. Simamba is a rising actor and playwright whose name you should definitely know. With a number of awards under her belt and several productions already on her C.V., Simamba has been honing her craft and steadily presenting her work across the country. Her one-person play Our Father, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers won the Dora Award for Outstanding Performance and New Play.
Key works: Our Father, Sons, Lovers and Little Brothers, MUD, A Chitenge Story
Another multihyphenate artist, Andrea Scott has been writing and creating consistently for almost a decade. Her work has won a number of awards and much of it has also been published. As noted above, Scott just wrapped up the world premiere of her play Controlled Damage in Halifax. Inspired by the activism of Canadian civil rights hero Viola Desmond, the production sold out before it opened. Enough said.
Key works: Controlled Damage, Eating Pomegranates Naked, Better Angels: A Parable, Don't Talk to Me Like I'm Your Wife, Princesses Don't Grow on Trees, Everyday She Rose (co-written with Nick Green)
Djanet Sears sets the bar for all of us. Beyond being a brilliant playwright, producer, actor, teacher and director, she is also the editor behind one of the most seminal collections of Black Canadian theatre writing (Testifyin': Contemporary African Canadian Drama Volumes 1 and 2) and the co-creator of the AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival. Her works have won multiple Dora Awards, and with her play Harlem Duet, she became the first Black woman to win the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama in the English language in 1998. Harlem Duet was also the first African-Canadian play produced by Canadian Stage. Years later, when the Stratford Festival produced the show in 2006, it was the first time they'd staged a show with an all-Black cast directed by a Black woman.
Key works: Afrika Solo, Harlem Duet and The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God
An artist and journalist, Rhoma Spencer is a stalwart champion for the development and production of Caribbean theatre in Canada. Founder of Theatre Archipelago, Spencer has helped to put the stories of her culture on the Canadian stage, including tales about the traditional Carnival mas and a biographical examination of Marcus Garvey
Key works: Jean and Dinah (co-written with Tony Hall and Susan Sandiford),Carnival Medea (co-written with Shirlene Holmes)
Meghan Swaby is an actor and playwright whose first play Who the Hell is Eleanore? was workshopped at several theatre festivals and programs. Her full-length play Venus' Daughter premiered in 2016 with Obsidian Theatre and featured a powerful cast. I'm looking forward to seeing what comes next for this indisputable talent.
Key work: Venus' Daughter
Bahia Watson and Liza Paul
Together, Bahia Watson and Liza Paul created one of my all-time favourite theatrical experiences: a show called pomme is french for apple that played New York City and the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, in addition to all over Canada. The two recently dreamed up an equally entertaining "feminist bashment circus" (their brilliant description, not mine) called Mashup. Watson also has a new work in development called shaniqua in abstraction, so stay on the lookout for that one.
Key works: pomme is french for apple, Mashup
Anne-Marie "Amani" Woods
Anne-Marie Woods is another multihyphenate whose body of work across mediums seems to defy comprehension. Her plays have been staged at theatres in Canada and the U.S. to critical acclaim. Along the way, she has also prioritized mentorship and community support, helping to develop new talent as she grows.
Key works: Waiting to Explode, Scotian Journey, The Three Friends, She Said/He Said
A playwright, performer, director, dramaturge, dub poet and educator, d'bi.young anitafrika has not only created some of the most powerful one-person plays in the Canadian theatre canon but also pioneered a methodology that has been adopted and practiced by numerous Canadian artists in their creative pursuits (myself included). She is a mesmerizing force whose work and performances frequently transport audiences to otherworldly planes and a three-time Dora Award winner with 12 produced plays under her belt. Legendary doesn't even begin to describe her.
Key works: Blood.Claat, Benu, Word! Sound! Powah!, She Mami Wata & the Pussywitch Hunt, Esu Crossing the Middle Passage, Lukumi: A Dub Opera, Nanny: Maroon Warrior Queen