Montreal's Black Theatre Workshop marks half-century milestone

Canada's oldest Black theatre company is still going strong after half a century performing.

Canada's oldest Black theatre company still going strong after half a century

Quincy Armorer has been the artistic director of the Black Theatre Workshop for a decade. (Black Theatre Workshop/YouTube)

Like so many things disrupted by the pandemic, Quincy Armorer's year didn't go exactly as planned.

The artistic director for Montreal's oldest and longest-running Black theatre company was busy gearing up for the 2020-21 season, which would mark half a century of artistic achievement for the Black Theatre Workshop.

Unfortunately, the restrictions on gathering and shuttering of performance venues meant that most of the company's plans were put on hold.

Still, Armorer said the company will be marking its major milestone with some online material and saving the rest for a time when it's safe for everyone to return to theatres.

"Art is important and hopefully our audiences, when we finally are able to open up our doors again, will be there for us," he said.

Faced with a subdued celebration this year and an uncertain future, Armorer said he's feeling a mix of emotions.

"We're very, very proud to have gotten where we are. We're a little bit annoyed that the pandemic isn't letting us do what we wanted. There's a lot going on," he told CBC's Let's Go.

Armorer, who has served as artistic director for the Black Theatre Workshop for a decade, said he's "excited for the company to continue in the legacy of those that came before."

"We wear that badge of honour with pride."

An archival photo shows actors taking a bow at the 1978 Black Theatre Workshop production The Gingerbread Lady. (Black Theatre Workshop)

In a normal year, the Black Theatre Workshop produces two mainstage productions each year as well as a school tour for Black History Month.

The first event of the company's 50th season will feature a virtual staged reading of Sanctuary by Lydie Dubuisson. It's set to be streamed live on Facebook on Dec. 11.

A home for Black artists

The Black Theatre Workshop started out as a branch of the Trinidad and Tobago Association of Montreal. Its very first production under the BTW banner was in June 1971.

Since then, the company has expanded its operations, going on to produce award-winning plays by emerging Montreal playwrights.

Armorer described the company as a home for Black artists, saying that it provides a place where many get their foot in the door and gain valuable professional experience when just starting out in their careers.

"If we actually think about all the artists who had their first professional contract with the Workshop ... that's something very remarkable."

It's also been a place to foster collaboration and community for Black artists.

"For a long time, working outside of Black Theatre Workshop, you'd run into other Black artists at auditions and things like that, and often you feel like we're going up against each other — we have to compete for these roles, with our colleagues and our friends — whereas with Black Theatre Workshop, we're afforded the opportunity to work with each other."

"So that's really part of what we want to capture with Black Theatre Workshop — that sense of family, that sense of community, because it really is rooted in being storytellers for all of the stories that speak to our community."

Armorer said looking ahead, he wants to focus on bringing new voices and experiences to Montreal stages.

"We're going into our second half century now. I think what we need to do is find out what are the stories that still need to be told. How can we serve our community in the best possible way?"

While this year won't be the grand celebration they planned, Black Theatre Workshop still has some exciting projects in the pipeline including a hip-hop musical by Montreal writer Omari Newton that features a rap battle between a Black teenager shot nine times by police and the white police officer who shot him.

The company is also committed to reaching out to Black French-speaking audiences, partnering with French theatre companies to produce translated productions of some of its plays.

A collaboration between BTW and Théâtre La Licorne will stage a new version of Pipeline by Dominique Morisseau during the 2021-22 season, in both English and in French.

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.


With files from CBC's Let's Go, Shahroze Rauf