How do we make Canada's stages look more like our cities? This festival is working on an answer

Canada's extraordinary diversity is rarely reflected in the theatre — so this year's Canoe Festival will present the work of artists exclusively from the African diaspora.

Edmonton's Canoe Festival will present the work of artists exclusively from the African diaspora this year

Sébastien Heins in Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera. (Dakota Arsenault)

Canada's extraordinary diversity is rarely reflected on our theatre stages — but Edmonton's Workshop West is taking a small step in addressing this problem. For this year's Canoe Festival, they will present the work of artists exclusively from the African diaspora.

How to make Canada's stages looks more like our cities has been on artistic director Vern Thiessen's mind since he returned to Edmonton in 2014 after spending seven years teaching in the South Bronx — an experience where he was confronted by his whiteness, and the privilege that accompanies it, in a way he had never been before.

"I started to look around and ask myself who I wasn't seeing on stage and who I wasn't seeing in the audience," Thiessen says. "It wasn't that there were no artists of colour in the city — it's just that you weren't seeing them on main stages because big art institutions were only programming for one segment of the population. I wanted to take a step towards changing that."

Presented as part of the multidisciplinary Chinook Series, the Canoe Festival includes a group of local artists presenting performances and workshops called Black Arts Matter and a trio of solo shows by creators from outside Edmonton.

Sébastien Heins in Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera. (Dakota Arsenault)

Toronto-based writer/performer Sébastien Heins will be bringing Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera to the event. Blending hip hop, R&B, soul and gospel with physical theatre, the show follows a pair of twins hoping to find fame and success in the music business.

Since its premiere at Toronto's Buddies in Bad Times in 2014, it's already hit New York, Ottawa, Whitehorse and Calgary, and is slated to tour India later this year. The play is his first solo since graduating the National Theatre School, where it began as a 15-minute class assignment.

Heins has been navigating the industry since completing his studies in 2012. But he's hardly a stranger to the field. His first role was playing Young Simba in Toronto production The Lion King at age 10. And while many people of colour start their careers aware of the limitations that exist, cutting his teeth on one of most culturally diverse musicals ever made helped give him a different take on things.

If you want a population to work together, representation is key to developing a sense of belonging and harmony.- Sébastien   Heins

"My introduction to theatre was one where everyone looked like me," Heins says. "I felt incredibly legitimate, being surrounded by all that vibrancy and talent. When I decided I wanted to do it as a profession, I initially felt a certain amount of exceptionalism because of my complexion. I was a guy who was black who loved theatre, which seemed like a unique selling point. It wasn't until I graduated and started going to film and TV auditions that I started to see the limitations my race was going to have."

In keeping with our country's shifting demographics, the discussion about creating a more inclusive arts sector is happening, albeit in baby steps. But a glance at the season for most theatres will show almost or exclusively white artists on the bill.

It's not that the arts sector is unaware of this issue. Most folks will passively agree that diversifying the field is a good idea. But in terms of a concrete reason why this is important, Heins offers a unique take.

"If you want a population to work together, representation is key to developing a sense of belonging and harmony," he says. "Showing people that they belong and have a voice is critical — otherwise they feel alienated and it becomes an 'us vs. them' country. We need inclusion to progress as we move into a more diverse future because it's necessary for the survival of society. I'm really excited to be part of an initiative that takes that on as a theatrical possibility."

The Chinook Series. Through February 19. Various locations, Edmonton.


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