Why Hamilton artists of colour don't buy Theatre Aquarius's Black Lives Matter message

The artists say Theatre Aquarius has blocked them out. The theatre says it plans to do better.

The artists say Theatre Aquarius has blocked them out. The theatre says it plans to do better

Theatre artists of colour say their attempts to reach out to Theatre Aquarius over the years have been met with silence. (Theatre Aquarius)

As social media posts go, Theatre Aquarius's Black Lives Matter message didn't really land with Radha Menon.

Menon is an award-winning playwright, filmmaker and performer. But over the years, she says, her emails and phone calls to Theatre Aquarius have gone unanswered. She even spent a year in the all-white, mostly male Theatre Aquarius playwrights unit, she says, and got constant reminders that she didn't belong.

To hear other Hamilton artists of colour tell it, Menon isn't alone in that. Theatre Aquarius is trying to say all the right words, they say, but has long shut them out, and is catering to an older, mostly white audience rather than embracing diversity. 

"I just thought 'what a lot of gas,'" Menon said of the post.

Menon's plays have been performed across Canada, the U.S. and the UK. She just won her second City of Hamilton arts award, "but I really have no way to show my work in Hamilton." 

She met with Theatre Aquarius's artistic director once, she says, and walked away feeling like she'd made progress. After that, the line went cold. 

At one point during her time in the playwrights unit, she recalls, members went out for drinks, and she was the only woman or person of colour in the group. When she spoke out against a sexist remark, she says, one of the members threatened to punch her.

Radha Menon's plays have been performed in Canada, the U.S. and the UK, but never at Theatre Aquarius. (Radha Menon)

"They don't reply to anything," she said of Theatre Aquarius. "Whether you send them an email or a letter, they don't respond … I feel overlooked. I've felt shunned."

Artists interviewed by CBC News say Theatre Aquarius has long had a reputation for staging predominantly white, mostly male-centric offerings — a place where a person of colour isn't likely to get on stage, let alone have a play produced.

When the theatre posted support for the Black Lives Matter movement on Facebook on June 5, it drew 54 comments, most of them expressing frustration.

"Tell us what your 'doing better' entails," one commenter said. "What blind spots have you recently discovered within your organization? Are you only looking at who's ON your stage instead of who makes up all of your teams?"

"Your statement appears vapid and we condemn this attempt to jump on the equity bandwagon," said the Coalition of Black and Racialized Artists in Hamilton (COBRA). Last November, COBRA said, it invited the Theatre Aquarius board and artistic director to a two-day symposium focused on Black, Indigenous and people of colour (BIPOC) artists.

"Our invitation was ignored by Theatre Aquarius management, just like the countless letters from BIPOC theatre artists and COBRA members."

"Aquarius has never programmed a local BIPOC artist for their main stage in the time that I've been alive," says playwright Aaron Jan. (Graham Isador)

Lorna Zaremba, Theatre Aquarius executive director, says this has opened the theatre's eyes. And change is coming.

Theatre staff will talk to the board about next steps, she said. That will include looking at board members, hiring practices and programming decisions.

"We intend to do better," she said. 

"There's a real effort by the theatre at this time to find the right way forward … We need to listen, and listen to those who have not been heard."

Zaremba says board members are aware of the backlash from the post. The organization already planned a strategic planning session in October, and the diversity issue will be part of that.

"Once we've got our internal work done, we will be back to tell the community what it is we intend to do."

For artists like Menon, Theatre Aquarius's lack of diverse programming isn't just an annoyance. It's the only professional theatre in the city, and it gets the most funding by far, including federal, provincial and city grants. Three city councillors sit on the board.

"A lot of us have just given up on them," Kit Mai says of Theatre Aquarius. (Kit Mai)

For that reason, a lot of artists are afraid to speak up, says Aaron Jan, who has directed plays at Toronto's Tarragon, Annex and Factory Theatres. He's due to direct Spring Awakening with Hamilton Theatre Inc. in November. He and Menon are also part of The Garden Project, which will provide seed money and mentorship to four BIPOC artists during the COVID-19 pandemic.

"There's a theory that if you cross Aquarius," Jan said, "you can't make money to work."

Jan did a directing mentorship program in 2014, and says it was a good experience. But "Aquarius has never programmed a local BIPOC artist for their main stage in the time that I've been alive," he said. "Usually their programming caters to an older white demographic."

"When I talk to a lot of BIPOC artists, they feel very isolated by them."

This includes Kit Mai, who produced and ran a program in partnership with Theatre Aquarius to engage queer youth. The staff members involved in that were inclusive, Mai said. But then the theatre ignored an invitation to be part of a networking event for new artists at the Hamilton Fringe Festival.

Theatre Aquarius offerings last year included Hairspray, Freaky Friday and Letter from Wingfield Farm. (Banko Media Inc./Theatre Aquarius)

"They need to be part of the theatre community as a whole," Mai said. "They haven't been. It's a thing that we all know and accept, and we don't even take them seriously anymore."

Theatre Aquarius's programming, Mai said, is "very geared toward their subscriber base. There's nothing about their programming that I would want to see. There's nothing I would audition for as a performer."

"I know in my own peer group of emerging artists, we don't even consider Theatre Aquarius as a place we could reach out to for support. We gravitate to Toronto because at least there, there's infrastructure."

Upcoming Theatre Aquarius plays for the 2020/2021 season include Joshua Harmon's Admissions, about "a liberal who is fighting to diversify the student intake and a mother who wants the best for her son." Her son is deferred from his university of choice in favour of his mixed-raced best friend, "who 'ticks more boxes,'" the description says. Other scheduled performances include The Buddy Holly Story, Cinderella, and Norm Foster's Come Down From Up River.

'We need to look at how we can do better'

Zaremba says the theatre will come up with a concrete list of ways it will open its doors wider. It already has educational programs where it reaches out to LGBTQ and new Canadians, she said.

But "obviously, for those who do know about it, it's not enough,' Zaremba said. "What this is telling us is that as a sector, we need to look at how we can do better … What Theatre Aquarius will do is turn inwards to look at all of our practices."

"There's a real effort by the theatre at this time to signal our way forward."

Menon says Theatre Aquarius needs a shake up in its leadership. Otherwise, "they're just empty promises."

"You need someone who knows these people, who understands the work, who understands the city," she said. "I think empty promises add up to zero."


Samantha Craggs is a CBC News reporter based in Hamilton, Ont. She often tweets about Hamilton city hall. Follow her on Twitter at @SamCraggsCBC, or email her at samantha.craggs@cbc.ca