Television·INTERVIEW

Surf's up: Vinessa Antoine is back in Diggstown and the stakes couldn't be higher

After making Canadian television history in its first season, CBC’s legal drama Diggstown is back with season two premiering on March 4.
Patrick Kwok-Choon as Vince Hu, Vinessa Antoine as Marcie Diggs. (CBC / Dan Callis)

After making Canadian television history in its first season, CBC's legal drama Diggstown is back with season two premiering on March 4. 

Returning in the role of Marcie Diggs is Toronto-born actor Vinessa Antoine, who readily acknowledges the first season's significance as a Black Canadian woman. 

"There was a lot of interest in the beginning because there hadn't been a person of colour [cast in a lead role] in a drama in Canada in TV history and I think people were excited about that," she says speaking from her current base of Los Angeles. 

"I think there was a lot of excitement in the beginning and I think there's a lot of excitement going into season two as well. For me anyway, it still feels like season one because we pretty much pick back up where we left off. We only did six episodes for the first season and six more for the second season so it feels like we're kinda picking up in the middle of the season for me."

Indeed, season two finds the character of Marcie Diggs — who abruptly left corporate law to practice legal aid in Halifax, N.S., in the traumatic aftermath of the death of her aunt — dealing with a number of issues both in and outside of the courtroom.

Marcie's decisions about who she deigns to represent begin to directly impact her relationship with her community. Additionally, the stakes involved for Marcie's clients are higher than the first season as all the cases involve murder charges of some kind. 

She has such a big heart and has empathy for people and what they are going through.- Vinessa Antoine on her character Marcie Diggs

And while some of Marcie's no-holds barred actions in the first season got results for her clients in the short term, some of those tactics begin to emerge as potential stumbling blocks for her character. All of these developments are welcome to Antoine.

"In the beginning I think she thought she had it all figured out in her brain," says Antoine of her well-rounded character who counts surfing as one of her passionate pursuits. 

"I think she thought that she would kinda come in and this would be you know, easier. 'Maybe legal aid isn't a flashy corporate job, I'm working with my university professor who is also my friend and this will be something easier for me to deal with.' And I think she very quickly realized that it was ten times harder. So that's when I think we're really going to see Marcie change, rolling up her sleeves and getting deeper."

Shailene Garnett as Iris Beals, Vinessa Antoine as Marcie Diggs. (CBC / Dan Callis)

At a recent Writers Guild of Canada event in Toronto, Diggstown creator and showrunner Floyd Kane said that Diggs' "superpower is her empathy." Given the increasingly complex narrative her character has to navigate in season two, Antoine agrees. 

"I think that this character is a little different for me in that a lot of the characters I've played, auditioned for and read for, women, Black women in my age group, they tend to have a stereotype of cracking the whip, being a little more angry, being a little more tough — these are words usually in the breakdown — kinda girl," says Antoine. 

"And Marcie's that, but I wanted to make her a little different. I wanted to make her a little closer to girls I grew up with, girls that I know. And yeah, she has a big heart and that's how she is able to stick through and do the best job that she can. Because she has such a big heart and has empathy for people and what they are going through."

Me, personally I feel very connected to each and every case.- Vinessa Antoine on the worlds explored in

"I don't think I see that a lot, I don't think we see a lot of women of colour, Black women anyway, affected in an emotional way by the injustices of the world. It's usually like 'I'm pissed, I'm angry, I'm gonna change this, I'm gonna go in and snap my fingers and you're all going to fall into line because I'm not going to deal with this.' But maybe she breaks down crying in her office and doesn't know how to cope with injustice. But then she comes back fighting."

We see that tangible mixture of vulnerability and tenacity in the second season as Diggs represents a young Indigenous woman named Cheryl Batiste.

At the end of the episode, Diggs sits down to have a coffee with her fellow legal aid colleague, Indigenous lawyer Doug Paul (played by Brandon Oakes) where she realizes in hindsight that her staunch defence of Batiste needed to be more nuanced than she initially realized.

Poignant in its own right, the scene also serves as a microcosm of the possibilities of Black and Indigenous solidarity in the face of facing racism and discrimination.

"When we were shooting that episode we had a lot of conversations with [Oakes] who plays that character," says Antoine. 

"I don't think we've really been having conversations about different types of struggle that different people have, particularly Indigenous community and the Black community. And for these two groups to come together in this episode in this very small way was very interesting for me. Because in one way you think as a Black woman the kinds of oppression and the kinds of uphill battles that we have to face every single day." 

"You think well, surely other groups of people are facing these exact same battles as a person of colour as a woman of colour. And I think this episode for me as an actor, for me as a person it's sort of opened up the iris of the eye a little bit wider, if you will, to look around and say perhaps there are other groups of people, other people of colour that are fighting a different uphill battle, you know. And your way may not be the only way."

Being open to viewpoints of different communities also meant Antoine has become intimately aware of the everyday lives of the people in North Preston, N.S., the oldest and largest Black community in Canada, where Diggstown is set and often filmed. In the season two premiere, Marcie defends Vince Hu, a policeman who is involved with the death of a member of North Preston's community, putting her relationship to the Preston community into sharp focus, highlighting the well-documented real-life strained relations between police and people in Preston.

Vinessa Antoine as Marcie Diggs (left), Arlene Duncan as Velma Diggs. (CBC / Dan Callis)

"The community is strong, the community is beautiful, the community was very warm and welcoming to us," says Antoine of the experience filming there. 

"But I will say that in talking with people that I met along the way that were a part of the show and that were part of the crew and were on the set, they told me the stories that they go through and the experiences that they've been living with there. There's this sort of stigma, like 'Oh, don't go to Preston or go to north Preston' and 'Preston has all these negative things.' In fact it was not like that at all. I got there and it was so lovely and warm and everybody was so cool and you get what you put out there. There are people that don't even know north Preston exists which is amazing. It's its own little bubble."

The passion with which Antoine speaks about the Preston community in N.S. is inherently connected to her own passion to see the everyday lives of people in difficult circumstances whose voices may not often be heard being portrayed on the screen. She is effusive when speaking of the show's writing in its ability to explore these themes as well as highly relevant social issues through the cases she and the rest of the Halifax Legal Aid team (led by Canadian actor Natasha Henstridge) take on.

"Me, personally I feel very connected to each and every case," says Antoine. 

"When I get the script that's like the first thing that I do. Like who's the person that I'm working with and their story and it just opens up this whole world in about what's going on in society in terms of that particular case. It's not just we're working with a single dad who has an alcoholic problem. We're [also] working with a woman who was about to get raped and her friend has stabbed this man and it opens up a whole new world for Vinessa and it opens up a whole new world for Marcie. And I'm hoping it will open a whole new world for the viewer as well."

Catch Diggstown Wednesday nights on CBC Television, and streaming online on CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Del Cowie is a Toronto-based music journalist and editor who has worked as a writer, producer and researcher for the Peabody and International Emmy Award-winning Netflix documentary series Hip Hop Evolution. He has also worked as a producer for CBC Music and was hip-hop editor at national music magazine Exclaim! for over a decade. Additionally, he has contributed writing on hip-hop music and culture to NOW, NOISEY and XXL among other publications. Cowie has served as a judge for the Junos, the SOCAN Songwriting Prize and the Prism Prize and has been a member of the Polaris Music Prize jury since its 2006 inception. Since 2015 he has produced and presented Before the 6ix, an ongoing panel discussion focusing on Toronto hip-hop history in association with the Toronto Public Library.

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