Sir George Williams riot back in spotlight on 50th anniversary with new play Blackout
Play returns to 1969 Montreal, when racism allegations led to $2M in damages, 97 arrests
Allegations of racism at a Montreal university, a lacklustre investigation, fumbled mediation, a peaceful sit-in and raging fire are being revisited 50 years later with the play Blackout.
It's being staged in the D.B. Clarke Theatre, located 10 floors below the computer lab where a violent and costly student riot erupted in early 1969.
The protest in the Henry F. Hall Building of Sir George Williams University, which later became Concordia, caused about $2 million in damage and led to 97 arrests.
The Sir George Williams Affair, also known as the Sir George Williams riot, highlighted the racism immigrants faced in Canada and prompted national soul-searching about how welcoming the country really was.
Fifty years ago, a group of black Caribbean students lodged a racism complaint against one of their professors. They accused him of grading them lower than white students, as well as lacing micro-aggressions throughout his interactions with them.
"All the white students he would call 'Matt' or 'Jack' or 'Tony,' but when it came to the black students, it would be 'Mr. Smith,'" said Mathieu Murphy-Perron, the artistic and executive producer of Tableau D'Hôte Theatre, the company behind Blackout.
The university set up a committee to investigate the racism allegations, but ultimately dismissed them. With that, about 200 students occupied the university's computer centre on Jan. 29, 1969, and they stayed until the administration handed the situation over to police on Feb. 11.
That's when the peaceful sit-in turned violent — a fire was set, equipment was destroyed and protesters were arrested.
"We know that there were hundreds of people gathered outside the Hall Building yelling 'Let the N-word burn.' But that's not hundreds of years ago. That's our parents," said Murphy-Perron.
Protesters were blamed for the damage, but some believed the fire was set by police as a tactic to dismantle the protest.
Once it was over, the professor at the centre of the unrest was reinstated.
Last year, Murphy-Perron, a former Concordia student, gathered a team of writers and collaborators to research the event and work on a script.
The resulting play uses a set of fictional characters to explore the real historical events and their impact on the social discussion of race at the time.
People gathered outside the Hall Building yelling 'Let the N-word burn.' But that's not 100s of years ago. That's our parents.- Mathieu Murphy-Perron , artistic director, Tableau D'Hôte Theatre
Bait-and-switch Canadian inclusivity
The play's dramaturge, Diane Roberts, immigrated to Canada as a child and has taught in the theatre department at Concordia.
She said she felt the tension in the late 1960s between what immigrants were told of the country, compared to what they got.
Pierre Elliot Trudeau's government painted Canada as a positive and welcoming place for immigrants, but upon arriving, "a real sense of resentment" is what Roberts said greeted her and her Caribbean-born parents.
"The Trudeau government was targeting us to come over, and then, when we were here, we were targeted as being, you know, freeloaders, or taking away jobs from people who were born and bred in Montreal," she said.
In the era of Black Lives Matter, the play holds a mirror to where society has progressed, and where it has stalled when it comes to inclusivity.
Fifty years after the events depicted in the play, its creators think that anti-racism protesters are still treated and represented poorly.
"The dominant society always tends to feel that they have a right to tell anti-racist groups what the right way for them to communicate is," Murphy-Perron said.
Murphy-Perron points to what happened last summer, when people protesting the play SLĀV were demonized.
SLĀV features a score of slave songs performed by a predominantly white cast.
The play's co-creator, famed Quebec director Robert Lepage, labelled such criticism an attack on artistic freedom.
SLĀV was dropped from the Montreal International Jazz Festival lineup, but the show has since gotten a second life touring Quebec.
'The Canadian experience of blackness'
Concordia alumnus and Blackout actress Michelle Rambharose said that the Black Lives Matter movement has helped show how much more needs to be done when it comes to the conversation around race in Canada.
"I think that stories like this are important to continue doing that work, and to bring the Canadian experience of blackness to the forefront of people's consciousness," Rambharose said.
Rambharose said she didn't know about the protest while she was a theatre student at Concordia and hopes Blackout will shed light on the past.
Arts granting groups do too. The show has become the most generously funded in Tableau D'Hôte's 14 year history.
That's what has allowed the company to rent the large D.B. Clarke Theatre — so Blackout can be performed in the building where the protest took place.
"I think they see the artistic merit and the political importance of doing this show," Murphy-Perron said.
Healing or bust
The show will inevitably stoke reflection and conversation, but Murphy-Perron said he also wants it to provide a kind of healing, "and if it's not helping to heal, then we didn't do it the way we wanted to."
"It's still a story that's inspired by something very real, because it hurt a lot of people," he said.
Often, artists whose work borrows from another's life experience might bristle at the suggestion that they are causing pain, and will stand by their creation.
By contrast, Murphy-Perron said that if people who were involved in the protest "give the thumbs down" to Blackout, the show will end after its two-week run at Concordia and never be staged again.
Blackout opens Jan. 30 at the D.B. Clarke Theatre (Henry F. Hall Bldg. 1455 Boulevard de Maisonneuve West) and runs until Feb. 10. Tickets are $22 to $27.