At 77, Walter Borden is finally playing a role that reflects his Black-Indigenous identity
Now starring in Lilies, he shares how he's moved through the world thriving rather than just surviving
In the 1967 NFB short film "Encounter at Kwacha House," a group of young people have an animated discussion about their everyday experiences of racism in Halifax while weighing the pros and cons of various strategies of resistance. Sitting quietly for much of the 17-minute film is a striking young man in a black turtleneck. At the end, he suddenly springs up to dramatically — and might I say almost theatrically — enter the debate.
Years after watching the film, I learned that the man was a young Walter Borden, the Nova Scotia actor, playwright, poet, teacher and activist. I instantly became fascinated by this living legend.
Since 1970, Borden has been performing professionally on stages and screens across the country. He has also been on the frontlines of some of the most important and critical activism in this country. He helped build Canada's own civil rights movement through his work with the Nova Scotia Project and the Black United Front.
Over the years, Borden has worn numerous hats. As a school teacher, he consciously chose to work in the most under-performing schools in Halifax, finding creative ways to bridge the sharp racial divides between students. He also held a government job, working to make sure that theatre companies received the resources they needed. As a playwright, Borden penned Tightrope Time, an autobiographical play that became one of the first plays in Black Canadian literature to explore queer identity.
However, after five decades of work, Walter Borden has never explored one aspect of his identity on stage until now: his Métis heritage.
At the age of 77, Walter Borden is performing in a Toronto revival of the classic French Canadian play Lilies by Michel Marc Bouchard. It tells the story of two schoolboys whose budding romance is disrupted when one is unjustly incarcerated. Years later, their tragic relationship becomes the subject of a stage play created and performed by inmates.
In this iteration of Lilies, the cast is made up of predominantly Indigenous and Black actors to highlight the disproportionately high rates of incarceration that these communities face in Canada. Borden plays Simon, a Métis character.
Before rehearsals one day last week, I went to Buddies in Bad Times Theatre and sat in a small kitchenette with Borden. I didn't realize it at the time, but we were meeting the day after his old friend and fellow activist Joan Jones had passed away, and he was understandably in a reflective and nostalgic mood.
Borden's memory is unbelievably sharp and he is generous with his stories. I could have sat with him for hours. He is a master storyteller with a commanding voice who knows the power of the dramatic pause and revels in grand flourishes and animated expressions.
We discussed the upcoming production of Lilies, his journey to the stage, his years of activism and how — in the midst of his multihyphenate identity — he has been able to move through the world thriving rather than just surviving.
Amanda Parris: Tell me about Lilies.
Walter Borden: Many people know the story and have seen film (Lilies, 1996). No matter what way you look at it, it's a beautiful, beautiful story. And the approach that's being taken with this production is the thing that captivates me the most.
What was your first encounter with Lilies?
Watching the film all those many years ago because I had friends in it. It was just this beautiful piece of work.
How did this invitation come about?
Well, I just got a query from Cole [Alvis], the director, asking me if I would do the role of Simon. He had known that I was Métis, and that fell into how he was going to tell the story. It was something that was really intriguing for me because his recognizing who I am and allowing me to project that in work was something that I had never done.
You've never been able to bring your Métis identity to the stage?
No! The artistic world basically knows me as a Black actor. It's just really nice to be able to say, "Yeah, it's Black Indigenous." Which is of course a reality that is not very well known in this country, and yet if they go to Nova Scotia they can see it all over the place.
I read that you've had multiple lives before you started acting full time. Can you tell me about that?
Well, you see, I started my professional life as a schoolteacher.
And was that a dream that you always had? To be a teacher?
Oh, no. From the time that I was 10 years old, I knew I wanted to be an actor. But I was in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia. In Grade 6 [I] had done a play. It was a Christmas play. [I was] playing the role of one of the characters in old-time England who walked around early in the evening, ringing the bell, at any given hour.
My mother and her best friend and my aunt and my uncle were sitting in the front row watching me. I was very, very conscious of them — not from a fearful standpoint. I was looking at their faces and what I saw was them seeing this child that they knew...and in this split second didn't know. And I thought, "Oh, wow." That's when I wanted to act. But I just kept it to myself because I was supposed to be a doctor. That was what was decided.
My first year in university was as a pre-med student. I was asked to go into the musical Oklahoma and after I did it I knew, "OK, I can't fool myself anymore. But I'm not going to discuss it with anybody." So I changed from the course I was studying and went to teacher's college to get a teacher's license, not even knowing what I was going to do about the acting. But it was just being propelled by the ancestors.
So you were teaching and then somehow you ended up in New York studying theatre. How did this happen?
[Walter shakes his head vigorously]
Oh, wait. Did I skip some stuff?
Oh, yeah. You see, the first year I was teaching it just happened that Rocky Jones and Joan [Jones] arrived from Toronto to start civil rights work. And on the day that Rocky spoke at Cornwallis Street Baptist Church, I went there and I heard what he had to say. Now, I knew immediately that what I was seeing and what I was being drawn toward was the antithesis of everything that was expected of me. Everything that Rocky was talking about and advocating and how he was advocating it was directly opposed by my uncle, Reverend Oliver. Rocky was putting together the Nova Scotia Project, which was going to deal with anything that had to do with civil rights, with human rights.
How was this against your uncle's perspective?
Well, we were what would be considered radical in our approach. Sort of like the difference between, let's say, the Black Panthers and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference or NAACP. We were Malcolm X. But it didn't mean that we didn't understand Dr. King. We, as was Malcolm, were at the point that Dr. King arrived at later.
Describe the energy — the feeling of growing and becoming in this historical moment.
Well, Amanda, it's funny because while we were in it, we never considered anything to be of historical importance — just importance for the moment because there was a problem that had to get solved. We knew the impact that it was having both at home nationally, even internationally. But it's funny because we always personally ended up thinking about it in terms of, "What would my mother say?" [laughs]
That's so human.
But that's what kept it all in the right place in the head. We were adhering to our motto: "We will work ourselves out of a job." Because if we did what we said we were setting out to do and achieved it, we wouldn't be needed anymore. And you know that's a very interesting attitude to have because it doesn't allow you to become entrenched. The other reality is because these problems are so gigantic, we knew we would never be out of a job. Maybe our great-great-great-grandchildren might be out of a job, but not us.
So the activities that you were doing included opening the youth centre Kwacha House?
We formed Kwacha House which was totally devoted toward the inner-city young people. And then the project, the bigger project, tackled other things like housing discrimination, job discrimination, drug dependency, all that. My greatest focus, of course, was on Kwacha House. Watching and helping them develop — the young ones, giving them a voice. That's where Rocky's wife Joan, Joan Jones who just so recently passed, was the matriarch of the whole thing — the whole project, but specifically Kwacha House.
They developed so magnificently. I mean, it blew their minds to find themselves performing at Expo ['67], but they did. These same young people were now having the opportunity to meet people like Saul Alinsky and debate with him. Timothy Leary, he was there too. They could meet people like Harry Belafonte, Odetta, Stokely Carmichael, Miriam Makeba.
OK. So you're doing all of this work — how did you end up in New York City?
Well, while I was doing this other stuff I was always taking part in community theatre and Halifax had really great community theatre. I went and I auditioned for National Theatre School. That was the first year that National Theatre existed. I was told that I was put on a waiting list. OK, fine. I kept on with my work.
The next year I did the same thing, got the same response and Evelyn [Garbary, founder of Mermaid Theatre of Nova Scotia] said to me, "If I were you, there's only one theatre school I'd go to, and that is the Circle in the Square."
I had never heard of Circle in the Square. Down I go, and I'm accepted into the school. That was in '67. This was the height of the Vietnam crisis. And to add to that was the junta in Greece had just taken place, and they had kicked all the intelligentsia and the artists out of the country. Well, a large group of them landed at Circle, and that's when I landed. So I walk in and people like Michael Cacoyannis are there directing. Irene Papas is acting. Milton Katselas is there. And this Greek thing was precisely what I needed as an artist. I mean, I didn't know I needed it. But I recognized it the minute I saw it. I'm just soaking this up.
In several interviews that I've read, it feels like one character that always comes up as a big role for you is Canada in Harlem Duet. Can you talk about why that role was so pivotal?
Well, Djanet Sears [is] the most important theatre person in my life. She had written Harlem Duet and I got a chance to play it in Nova Scotia. This was the first time that I was playing a Black character that I really knew. Before that I had played Hoke in Driving Miss Daisy and I really connected with Hoke. But this was different, Canada in Harlem Duet.
And then Djanet came to see me do that and said to me, "I'm writing a play, The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God. There is a character, Abendigo. Will you play Abendigo?" Well, whatever it was that Djanet wrote, I said yes. Abendigo became the signature role. I realized that those three characters — Hoke, Canada, Abendigo — they're brothers. They're three brothers. This is how I always saw them.
Why did you decide to begin writing for the theatre?
Well, on August the 4th, 1974, I decided I was going to sit down and write a book. And the book was going to be about my life. It's funny because I ended up writing in the play, "Pretentiousness allows us in the springtime of our 20s to think our life an epic for a book. But later as the season waxes lush into your 30s your story can be captured in a chapter."
Well, I was going to write a book and it was going to be about the '70s in Vancouver. Over the next 45 years was the unfolding of The Epistle of Tightrope Time. 45 years. Characters coming and going. Characters morphed into each other, out of each other. 45 years and now that is the piece that is ready to be done.
So what's happening with it now? Are we going to see it?
Well, that's the plan. I just keep getting interrupted with the here and now, but always the piece is there. The other thing that happened was that just last year, I looked at all the pieces that I had written in the play that had to be excised in order to make the play. I looked at that poetry and thought, "There's some really good stuff here." So what do you do? Make another book. It's already written. So it's a book of poetry that includes some of what's in the play, a great deal of what had to be excised. It's called African Mi'kmaq Songs in the Key of the Universal Anthem.
I look forward to it. Your identity occupies so many places. So often when we talk about these identities we're talking about stories of survival. But it feels like yours is one of thriving.
Exactly. Yes. I try to explain to many people who have asked me about the difficulties that can be associated with any one of those identities, I never came out. I was never in! They say, "Well, how did you get there?" Because I established who I was.
When I went in to work in the civil rights movement, what was asked of you was to utilize your talent. There was designated work to be done. Meanwhile, I was establishing what I did, how I did it, my voice, all that. So that what happened was that people automatically would not go into any area of my life without treading carefully. It's that defining of one's self and how one gets there.
I'm not minimizing the difficulty that anyone could have in getting to the same place that I got. But I always knew what my force was — always knew that. Even when I was a little kid and didn't say anything, it was something that radiated out. It was defining that whole thing about not letting anybody penetrate your aura. Didn't even know what those words were. But I understand now.
As I always say, I am the authority on who I am. Those aren't just words. It's a way of life. Everything else comes within that.
Lilies; Or, the Revival of a Romantic Drama. Featuring Walter Borden, Mark Cassius, Alexander Chapman, Waawaate Forbister. Written by Michel Marc Bouchard. Translation by Linda Gaboriau. Directed by Cole Alvis. To May 26. Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, Toronto. www.buddiesinbadtimes.com.