Arts·Point of View

As the theatre world scrambles to 'do better,' it's time these Black trailblazers get their due

Canadian artists like Philip Akin, ahdri zhina mandiela and Vivine Scarlett have been putting in work for decades but have seldom gotten the credit they deserve.

Canadian theatre artists have been putting in work for decades but have seldom gotten the credit they deserve

Kaleb Alexander and Mazin Elsadig in Obsidian Theatre's 2019 production of Pass Over by Antoinette Nwandu, directed by Philip Akin. (Cesar Ghisilieri)

The last month has felt like a gruelling journey, as George Floyd's murder at the hands of police sent a ripple across the world that turned into a tidal wave. Outside of the Black community, I have never in my lifetime seen this kind of response to the unjust killing of a Black person or to anti-Black racism. Every industry began to scramble to make statements and respond to the protests and outpouring of awareness. The Canadian art world also joined in, posting statements and Black squares — some less successfully than others.

I will admit, as I watched Canadian theatres display their contrition attached with pictures of Black actors from past productions, I was incredulous. Then I got angry and wanted people to know the truth.

As the artistic producer at Obsidian Theatre from 2010 to 2016 (and a longtime employee before then), I have seen firsthand how much work Black theatre artists have done — and how little credit they have gotten for it. During my time there, I watched co-founder and outgoing artistic director Philip Akin take phone call after phone call from Black artists looking for help navigating the racism they faced inside these companies. Akin, who will be stepping down as artistic director after nearly 15 years on June 30th, did not mince words when it came time for him to pen Obsidian's statement:

"People keep saying the system is broken. It isn't. It was designed this way...Of course Black lives matter, they are just not valued. That is our lived reality. If any of this is a surprise to you, then you haven't been paying attention. Wake up."

I knew that his words were directed toward the "surprise" from the theatre world. No one should be surprised to learn that Canada's cultural sector has a long-standing problem with anti-Black racism, and the shock from white colleagues never leads to systemic changes — something that Black artists have been witnessing for decades. In this moment, the years of being asked to be an unpaid consultant to the larger arts community while being ignored, under-recognized and underfunded only add to the sting of seeing solidarity statements and attempts at "doing better."

This culture is what led artists like ahdri zhina mandiela of b current, Vivine Scarlett of dance Immersion and Akin and his Obsidian co-founders to form their own companies. As the theatre world finally starts to attempt to combat anti-Black racism, it's time also for us to uplift some of the people who have been doing the work.

ahdri zhina mandiela and b current

ahdri zhina mandiela. (ahdri zhina mandiela)

When dub poet and theatre creator ahdri zhina mandiela founded b current in 1991, it became the landing place and launchpad for generations of Black creators. They would learn from the example set by mandiela as she brought dub theatre to the world and created work outside of a Eurocentric model. b current became the place for artists like Trey Anthony and d'bi.young to explore the artistic roots of the African diaspora and how they intersected with Canadian influences.

mandiela, who ran the company for 22 years, originally founded it to build a community of Black and racialized theatre artists.

"I realized I needed to start a company so that I could sort of formally start getting more support," she says. "Working in the sea of white was just so alienating, I needed a community especially of artists around me to remind me daily, 'Yeah, you are right. You're actually working in something that is important and we can do it in this space here."

mandiela says that for the most part while she was running the company, she felt absolutely no support from the larger arts community and little from her contemporaries. She admits that she read a few of the apologies and then refused to read anymore because of the larger context at play.

"I actually just need one big apology from like, everybody in the world. Or even just Canada and our government saying, 'Hey, we're sorry for slavery, and here is our plan around reparations'...because I've been waiting for that for decades, and I'm tired of waiting."

"Everything else is just like a little Band-Aid that says, 'Hey, you're cut.' No — I'm bleeding. I'm dying. We've been dying — long time."

Vivine Scarlett and dance Immersion

Vivine Scarlett. (Foteini Christofilopoulou)

The feeling that Black dance forms were being dismissed by the larger dance industry was what drove Vivine Scarlett to form dance Immersion in 1994. Her goals were to present Black dance companies like Kashedance and Esie Mensah Creations, build the skills of Black dancers and give networking opportunities to dance artists of African descent. That networking piece was especially imperative because it aimed to connect Black dancers with each other in the hopes that they would no longer be the lone "representative" in the room.

At first, Scarlett felt welcomed — but that quickly changed when many started to call on her to educate and facilitate the white dance world's "discovery" of dance forms in the African diaspora. While some companies began to work with Black dancers, it became clear to her that many were only willing to hire artists who practiced Eurocentric dance or Black dancers who were lighter-skinned and made majority-white artistic teams more comfortable. With little staff and years of underfunding, Scarlett was tasked with carrying an enormous amount of responsibility alone.

"It's more than just doing the work we set out to do," she says. "People come to you and they're grieving. They're hurt. You become a psychiatrist; you become a mother; you become all these things because the community needs it."

For her, this current "re-awakening" of Canada's arts sector to structural anti-Black racism is emotional and comes with exhaustion over the prospect of having more conversations with no real change.

"I've been doing this for 26 years, going to meetings. All they do is change what it is — multiculturalism, reconciliation, decolonization...[At first] you're excited and like, 'Oh yes — it is going to be changed.' And what happens? Nothing."

Philip Akin and Obsidian Theatre

Philip Akin. (David Cooper)

In the year 2000, some of Canada's most influential Black artists came together to form Obsidian Theatre. The full collective included Awaovieyi Agie, Philip Akin, Ardon Bess, David Collins, Roy Lewis, Yanna Macintosh, Diane Roberts, Kim Roberts, Sandi Ross, Djanet Sears, Satori Shakoor, Tricia Williams, and Alison Sealy-Smith, who would lead the company as its first artistic director. Their vision was to bring the Black voice, in its many artistic dialects, to Canada's cultural forefront by producing plays, developing playwrights and training emerging theatre professionals.

Although the company's first production — the world premiere of The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God by Djanet Sears — was celebrated, Obsidian struggled to find donors and spent their first several years concentrating on producing an average of one show per season. With Sealy-Smith at the helm, they produced innovative plays like Cast Iron by then-first-time playwright Lisa Codrington (shortlisted for the Governor General's Literary Award for Drama) and the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Piano Lesson by August Wilson. But despite the high calibre of work, funding always seemed to revolve around conversations of "excellence" — coded language that meant Black work was not up to par with its white counterparts. This did not reflect reality; speaking from personal experience, I've seen hundreds of plays and I am confident that there is both terrible and transformative work done in equal part by white and racialized artists.

When Philip Akin became artistic director in 2006, the company could often only produce in February because Black History Month was when corporate donors allocated money for Black work. At the core of Akin's mission at Obsidian was that every Black artist got paid and paid well, from the actors to light walkers (a position that other companies usually asked volunteers to fill). During one of the first shows we worked on together, Lynn Nottage's Ruined, I distinctly remember him telling me that if we didn't get the audience, it would bankrupt the company.

Being both the first acting graduate and the first Black actor to graduate from Ryerson Theatre School in 1975 gave Akin a unique understanding of the fears of young Black theatre school students. Like many other young artists, they would seek him out for guidance and mentorship, so his work at the company also centred on developing new voices — artists like Floydd Ricketts, Motion and Kimberley Rampersad. While he loved working with and for those artists, he still did the "other work," fielding requests and questions from non-Black people in the theatre community ranging from, "Can you find us a Black actor?" to, "I need a Black play for next season — which playwrights are good?"

I remember spending months working with him one year to compile several lists of Black actors for a major Canadian theatre company as they were casting an international tour. After six months of auditions, the person we were dealing with called to ask if we could send them a few more names because "we just didn't like any of the ones you sent us." This is the unenviable position many Black companies face: you cannot provide opportunities for everyone so you try to open other doors, but you never know what is behind them.

Joseph Jomo Pierre in Obsidian Theatre's 2013 production of his play Shakespeare's Nigga, directed by Philip Akin. (Adam Rankin)

Over the last couple of years, some of the same companies who came to Obsidian for help have begun to outbid them on the rights to popular Black shows. Even though Obsidian, under Akin's leadership, have had seasons where they won more Dora Awards than any other theatre company, these other organizations are able to make a convincing case to agents that they should be the ones to hold a Canadian premiere because they have more money and more staff. It is another tale in an old book: Black art ignored, popularized and then taken.

So where do we go from here?

When I ask Akin about the prospect of fielding requests to have conversations about racism after what's happened this month, he puts it plainly.

"You know, it's sort of like all the unpaid labour that built these countries. Now they want Black people to do unpaid labour again and fix their shit. So, what's changed?"

All three of these senior artists agree: it's time to stop this cycle. When I ask Vivine Scarlett for her advice for the next generation of Black arts leaders, she urges them to "connect with each other, and I mean all disciplines...We've always been doing the work, but we are not connected. And I think this is really bringing us together in a way that we haven't done before."

mandiela tells me she wants Black artists to rely on each other. "Hold hands in order to help each other out, because you're not gonna get your hand held in any shape or form by white companies unless you become it."

"Make the focus on building Black organizations larger," says Akin. "Don't particularly concern yourself with what white organizations are doing — let them figure their own shit out. Put Black artists first. They deserve to be first — they need that support."

"That is what we should be doing: Black artists first above everybody."

About the Author

Leah-Simone Bowen is a writer, producer and avid supporter of Beyoncé. She is the co-host and creator of the CBC Podcast The Secret Life of Canada, which looks at the untold and under-told history of the country.

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