Arts·Black Light

Black artists come first: Lessons from Philip Akin after 20 revolutionary years at Obsidian Theatre

The acclaimed artistic director talks to Amanda Parris. Watch their conversation.

The acclaimed artistic director talks to Amanda Parris. Watch their conversation

Philip Akin, artistic director of Obsidian Theatre Company. (Colin McConnell/Getty Images)

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.

I recently had the immense pleasure of interviewing Philip Akin, the widely celebrated artistic director of Obsidian Theatre Company. After co-founding the organization in 2000 and taking over as AD in 2006, Akin is stepping down from the position after nearly 15 years. Many have and will continue to sing his praises, and Mr. Akin undoubtedly deserves all of the flowers. Under his tenure, Obsidian has nurtured, developed and supported thousands of Black theatre artists across the country. I know this because I'm one of them. My debut play was co-produced by Obsidian back in 2017. 

The company's success can be measured in the money it's raised and the awards it's won (more than 30 Dora Awards and Toronto Theatre Critics Awards combined — including two new Doras that were picked up at Monday's ceremony). And then there are the honours bestowed upon Akin himself. But these metrics don't capture the entire picture. 

Rachel Mutombo, Emerjade Simms, Tatyana Mitchell, Natasha Mumba, Melissa Langdon and Bria McLaughlin - School Girls; Or, The African Mean Girls Play. Photo by Cesar Ghisilieri. Set Design by Rachel Forbes. Costume Design by Joanna Yu. Lighting Design by Michelle Ramsay. Head of Wardrobe by Chantelle Laliberte. (Cesar Ghisilieri/Obsidian Theatre in association with Nightwood Theatre)

As I write this article, a cultural reckoning has led institutions everywhere to publicly admit their gaps, failures and hypocrisies. And people from various sectors have shared testimonies that illustrate the myriad ways that systemic anti-Black racism plays out. Institutions continue to fail Black people. But then there is Obsidian — a theatre company that models through its action, policy and organizational culture that Black lives matter. Transcending hashtags and black squares, Akin spoke to me of the philosophies and principles that guided his leadership. 

Captured in the video below, the entire interview was a gift, and I hope that you will take the time to watch it all. But before you do, I do want to pull out a few key ideas that I've been thinking about in the days since we sat down. 

Building our own institutions

At one point, Akin talked about his "biggest failure." When I asked him about the changes he hopes to see happen in Canadian theatre, he challenged the relevance of my question.

"I'm afraid I'm a bit of an outlier with general beliefs," he said. "I think that if Black artists spent as much time building, supporting, creating, developing Black work as they do trying to change white organizations into being something that they aren't, we would be further ahead. I think the biggest failure I've had at Obsidian was I actually bought into this idea about changing people, which was all nonsense. It was garbage. What we should have done was said we're going to make Obsidian the powerhouse."

"You can spend your time and your life and your energy trying to fix those organizations. That's your choice. I wish that all that energy was put into building Black theatre."

If Black artists spent as much time building, supporting, creating, developing Black work as they do trying to change white organizations into being something that they aren't, we would be further ahead. ​​​​- Philip Akin, artistic director of Obsidian Theatre Company

In that answer, Akin articulated a debate that's been going on within Black communities for more than a century: should we try to change mainstream institutions, or should we just build and strengthen our own?

It's a critical and always relevant question. And it recognizes the spiritual and psychic toll Black folks take when they are, as Akin put it, "the raisin in the oatmeal." It acknowledges the cost of trying to change a system and challenges the wisdom of constantly paying that price over and over again when there is so little evidence of transformative change.

So back to the question: should we try to change mainstream institutions, or should we just build and strengthen our own? When I consider that, I think about something that's often left unspoken — a concern I usually wouldn't dare articulate on a CBC platform: how do we know that what we build will be much better?

In my limited experience, Black organizations and institutions are often created in response to our absence in mainstream spaces. From that reactionary position, we frequently end up replicating the very models of our oppression. The twin forces of colonialism and capitalism are inevitable roots for much of the turmoil that usually spells out our own demise. But during the interview, Akin shared three ways of thinking that have helped Obsidian side-step many of those traps. 

Black artists come first

His first philosophy is seductively simple: Black artists come first. OK, that doesn't sound like anything too original. Most Black arts organizations would claim to stand for the very same thing. But this principle exists as more than a PR statement. It informs Obsidian's policy and its practice of community care, labour and resource allocation. Akin says that Obsidian pays its artists above the rates set by unions. The company hires Black artists first and it pushes other institutions to hire them, too — advocating on their behalf to the entire industry.

During the interview, Akin mentioned a tweet from the playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, and it's an important addendum to this first principle. "She wrote, 'He'll help you even if he doesn't like you.' And I can't think of a better testimony than that, a better epitaph than that, because it's true," he said. "If I'm going to put Black people first, my personal opinion is not the guiding light here — it's what's going to help that artist move forward. My hope going forward is that people will be stalwart and unyielding and ferocious in the defence of Black artists." 

Akin challenges the age-old colonial practice of divide and conquer. His unapologetic determination to put Black artists first, regardless of his individual opinion, powerfully subverts much of the ego and in-fighting that I've seen destroy numerous well-meaning organizations. Evidence of his belief can be found in the very fact of his departure: Akin is arguably at the height of his career, but he is stepping down from Obsidian because he recognizes that part of putting Black artists first means making space for a new generation of leaders.

(L-R): Jully Black, Camille Eanga-Selenge, Alana Hibbert, Samantha Walkes and Stewart Adam McKensy in Caroline, or Change. (Photo: Dahlia Katz/Courtesy of Obsidian Theatre)

Practice 'radical generosity'

Akin's second principle is that Obsidian works from what he calls a philosophy of "radical generosity." The company believes it has a responsibility to support Black artists, including those outside the organization. And over the past two decades, it's become the go-to resource for Black theatre artists seeking guidance. Through time, labour and material resources, the company has nurtured generations of theatre-makers. And it offers help without asking for credit. 

"It's an idea that if you've got something, you share it," said Akin. "Obsidian has been blessed. We've had good management, but we've also had success at box office, success at the funding levels, success in a lot of ways. That spirit of radical generosity — to reach out and to help people achieve or get on the path to achieving their goals — I think is the big thing. It's bigger than any show." 

In the arts and nonprofit world, where grants are few and fundraising is hard, accolades and achievements are frequently viewed as potential bullet-points for future funding reports. At Obsidian, Akin challenges the competitive individualism that those systems perpetuate. 

Create a 'Black room'

The third idea that Akin shared with me speaks to his inner fortitude and his unapologetic focus to create and advocate for spaces where Black artists don't just exist as statistics; instead, he makes spaces where they can be their full and complete selves, finally free to manifest the potential of their creativity. Rather than paraphrase, I'll share exactly what he said to me: "Every room that I direct in is a Black room, even if I'm the only Black person in it." 

What does it mean to create a Black room? His response was surprisingly straightforward: don't code-switch.

Every room that I direct in is a Black room, even if I'm the only Black person in it.- Philip Akin, artistic director of Obsidian Theatre Company

A Black room means refusing to make things more palatable and accessible for the non-Black folks in the space. It means requiring that they do the work and put in the labour to understand, to translate and to be comfortable. It is a deviously simple decision that powerfully subverts so much of what we have been frequently conditioned to believe is required for success, and also what is required for change.

I'm going to leave it there, because nothing I write will be as good as what Akin says and he said a lot in this interview. He might be leaving Obsidian, but based on our conversation, I can say without a doubt that we should all still be listening to Mr. Akin. 

Watch our conversation:

The acclaimed artist director on the big ideas that built Obsidian Theatre Company and the philosophies and principles that guided his leadership. 27:05

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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