Putting the spotlight on playwrights of colour shouldn't be groundbreaking — but this is 2016
For their new season, Toronto's Factory Theatre is going 'Beyond the Great White North'
When I was in university, I went to see Trey Anthony's Da Kink in My Hair at the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto. It was the first time I saw black women on stage creatively exploring narratives familiar to my experience. It was a singular moment, simultaneously transformative and life-affirming.
But when I tried to find more theatre like it, I was at a loss.
Canadian playwright Djanet Sears has famously written about this problem. In the introduction to her 1997 play Harlem Duet, she lists 32 reasons why she writes for the theatre.
Reason number 23 states: "I have a dream. A dream that one day in the city where I live, at any given time of the year, I will be able to find at least one play that is filled with people who look like me, telling stories about me, my family, my friends, my community."
Almost 20 years later, that dream has yet to be realized.
However, one Toronto theatre company is taking a major step toward making it happen.
Canada includes all of us. Neutral is not white.- Nina Lee Aquino, Factory Theatre artistic director
Factory Theatre's 2016/17 season launches November 3 with David Yee's Aquiesce — and every playwright in this year's program is a person of colour. The lineup is called "Beyond the Great White North," and it promises to reshape conventional ideas of Canada.
When it comes to questions about diversity, it's a tumultuous time for Canadian theatre. This is the year, after all, of #canstagesowhite, the hashtag spawned by Canadian Stage's 2016/17 season. In all of their 18 plays, every director, playwright, choreographer and translator is white.
But Factory's season wasn't meant to be radical, nor was it a response to the CanStage controversy. "Little did I know this was going to be groundbreaking," says Nina Lee Aquino, Factory's Artistic Director.
When selecting plays by Tetsuro Shigematsu, Anusree Roy, Leon Aureus and Trey Anthony, Aquino says she wasn't filling a mandate for diversity — nor was she responding to broader questions about equity in theatre.
The season, she says, was programmed "from the heart." The plays are simply a reflection of her own tastes — and of life in Canada.
"It was only when I was putting it together that an outside party pointed out that all the works are created by artists of colour," she says. "I don't [count] statistics or quotas because I don't think that's my job right away."
Aquino is the founding member and Artistic Director of fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre Company. She organized the inaugural conference on Asian-Canadian Theatre and is the editor of Canada's first Asian-Canadian drama anthology Love and Relationships Vol. 1 and 2. Her journey has been defined by a commitment to creating space for diverse creators and stories — and that aligns with Factory Theatre's mandate to tell distinctly Canadian stories.
I wish the city was mature enough that we wouldn't see the current season as 'historic.'- Suvendrini Lena, playwright
"I think that what I'm offering with the season, to our audiences old and new, is just a change in perspective," she says. "It is about redefining and exploring perspectives on Canadian life and the citizens of this country. Canada includes all of us. Neutral is not white."
And there are still more voices to be heard. Tara Beagan, co-director of Toronto theatre production company Article 11, has criticized the absence of Indigenous playwrights in Factory's current lineup, writing about the issue in her blog.
When I asked Aquino to respond, she said that the company is currently developing works by Indigenous artists.
"This season is focused on exploring new Canadian identities, what it means to be a first or second generation Canadian and how these new Canadians contribute to redefining what Canada is," she writes.
Among those stories is The Enchanted Loom by Suvendrini Lena, a drama about a Sri Lankan family living in Toronto. It opens November 10.
When I ask Lena how she feels about being included in this historic season, she says she is humbled to be included alongside artists she's admired for years, but she notes that there's still a long ways to go — especially when she thinks about how people have been using "the h word" to describe the diverse Factory slate.
"At times, I wish the city was mature enough that we wouldn't see the current season as 'historic' [or] 'groundbreaking' because all the playwrights are playwrights of colour."
"Imagine if Factory programmed a season like this and nobody batted an eyelash because everybody recognized that these plays were essential examples of fine dramatic writing, taking on internationally relevant themes — just compelling in their own right."
Then, perhaps, the dream of Djanet Sears would truly become a reality.
Factory Theatre's 2016/17 season begins with Acquiesce. Written by David Yee. Directed by Nina Lee Aquino. Nov. 3 - 27. Factory Theatre, Toronto. www.factorytheatre.ca