Black theatre groups have existed since the early 19th century in Vancouver and Halifax and in small communities such as Ontario's North Buxton and Amherstburg. The first major breakthrough, however, occurred in 1942 in Montréal with the Negro Theatre Guild's production of Marc Connelly's The Green Pastures, produced by Don A. Haldane with stage design by Herbert Whittaker. The show was first produced at Victoria Hall, then transferred to Her Majesty's Theatre. In 1949, the group's production of Eugene O'Neill's The Emperor Jones won a Dominion Drama Festival best actor award for Percy Rodriguez. In the 1960s, the company began to produce plays that reflected the interests of immigrants from Africa and the Caribbean. After the emergence of the Black Theatre Workshop around 1968, however, the Guild was not able to sustain itself.
The late 1960s and early 1970s saw the formation of several Black theatre companies. In 1964, the Drama Committee of the Trinidad and Tobago Association began producing theatre and developing its artists. Driven by Victor Phillips, the committee quickly matured into the Black Theatre Workshop (BTW), which produced its premiere production, How Now Black Man by Montréal writer Lorris Elliott, in 1970.
The Black Theatre Workshop
The Black Theatre Workshop (BTW) has a long production history, alternating between the presentation of contemporary Black Canadian work and works from the international Black theatre repertoire. Works produced by BTW include The Black Experience by Clarence Bayne (1975), Hector Bunyan's Prodigals in a Promised Land (1982), Dwight Bacquie’s Marvin: Dream of a Lifetime (1988), and a remount of Richardo Keens-Douglas's children's play The Nutmeg Princess (1994), originally produced by Amah Harris's company Theatre in the Rough. These were followed by Andrew Moodie's Riot (1998–99) and Dennis Foon's New Canadian Kid (1998–99). In 1999, BTW received a $100,000 Millennium Arts Fund grant from the Canada Council, and revitalized its Youth Performer's Initiative, an intensive training program for Black youth. The company's work includes The Crossroad/ Le Carrefour (2000) by Kossi Efoui, Afrika Solo by Djanet Sears (2002, reprised as a school tour in 2006), Wade in the Water by George Elroy Boyd (2004), Blacks Don't Bowl by Vadney Haynes (2005–06), and The Lady Smith by Andrew Moodie (2006). Other BTW productions include Come Good Rain by George Bwanika Seremba (2007–08), Le Code Noir by George Elroy Boyd (2008–09), Swan Song of Maria by Carol Cece Anderson(2009–10), Stori Ya by Joan M. Kivanda (2011–12), Harlem Duet by Djanet Sears (2012–13), The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God by Djanet Sears (2015–16), Binti’s Journey, adapted by Marcia Johnson from the novel The Heaven Shop by Deborah Ellis (2016) and She Said/He Said by Anne-Marie Woods (2016–17).
Production credits from the international repertoire include Derek Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain, Joseph A. Walker's The River Niger, and David Westheimer's My Sweet Charlie in the 1970s; Ntozake Shange's acclaimed For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow is Enuf (1985); George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum (1987); Mustapha Matura's Playboy of the West Indies (1993) in co-production with Centaur Theatre; and Athol Fugard's My Children! My Africa! (1998–99).
Over its long history, BTW has been the artistic home for recognized artists such as Errol Slue, Jeff Henry, Walter Borden, Winston Sutton, Lorena Gale, Marvin Ishmael and Dwight Bacquie, and has been instrumental in the development of hundreds of Black theatre artists working across the country.
Black Theatre in Toronto
Two other noteworthy companies are Toronto's Theatre Fountainhead, founded in 1974 by Jeff Henry, and Black Theatre Canada (BTC), founded in 1973 by Vera Cudjoe. Following Henry's intention to develop and produce works of Black playwrights, his professional company performed the works of Wole Soyinka and Errol Sitahal, Henry's own play Africa in the Caribbean, and Coldsnap (1983) by Prairie-born Linda Ghan, which deals with the West Indian immigrant experience ; the musical fantasy The Obeah Man, written by and starring Richardo Keens-Douglas in a role that won him a Dora nomination (1985); and Athol Fugard's The Blood Knot in 1986. The company ceased productions in 1990 due to financial strain.
Cudjoe's goal in pioneering Black theatre in Toronto was to share the culture of Black people with the larger community. To this end BTC took productions into schools and ran successful workshops. BTC's accomplishments included productions of School's Out by playwright Trevor Rhone, Peter Robinson's Dem Two in Canada (1979), Daniel Caudeiron's More About Me (1979) and Leon Bibb's One More Stop on the Freedom Train, a musical about the Underground Railroad in Ontario. Produced in Toronto in 1984 and revived in 1985, the show toured across the country and played at Vancouver Expo 86 in the Canadian Pavilion as part of the Arts Against Apartheid Festival. Financial difficulties caused BTC to suspend operations in 1988. Theatre Fountainhead closed shortly afterwards in 1990.
Toronto's b current was founded in 1990 with the mission to develop new works rooted in the cultural, social and political experience of the Canadian and international Black diaspora. Throughout and since the 1990s, they have offered both full and workshop productions, as well as the rAiz'n the Sun Training Programs for young and emerging Black artists and the rock.paper.sistahz Festival, an annual festival of performance work by Black women artists and artists of colour. Notable recent productions include Obeah Opera at Panamania (2015), a retelling of the Salem Witch Trials from the point of view of Caribbean slave woman; Charlotte Corbeil-Coleman and Joseph Jomo Pierre’s Twisted (2015), a reimagining of Dicken’s Oliver Twist set in the streets of Toronto; and Sébastien Heins's The Hip Hopera (2016), a one-man show about two brothers attempting to live a life dedicated to hip hop.
AfriCan Theatre Ensemble from Toronto was founded in 1998 by its artistic director Modupe Olaogun, creating an avenue for cultural exchange between Africa and Canada, and recognizing the creative dialogue between Africa and its diaspora. The ensemble's performances include the Canadian premiere of Ola Rotimi's The Gods Are Not To Blame (1999), Rotimi's Our Husband Has Gone Mad Again (2000), Zakes Mda's And the Girls in Their Sunday Dresses (2001), Wole Soyinka's Death and the King's Horseman (2004), Donald Carr's The Full Nelson (2005), and Efua Sutherland's The Marriage of Anansewa (2008–09). Other recent productions include Jude Idada’s Coma (2013), a drama tackling themes surrounding assisted suicide, and Modupe Olaogun’s Lost (2013), which is set in 2006 in a Central African country during the aftermath of a horrific civil war.
Obsidian Theatre Company, founded in 2000 in Toronto, is dedicated to the exploration, development and production of the Black voice on the Canadian stage. Their production history includes The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God by Djanet Sears (2001–02), The Piano Lesson by August Wilson (2002–03), Consecrated Ground by George Elroy Boyd (2003–04), The Polished Hoe by Austin Clarke (2007), Black Medea by Wesley Enoch (2008–09), Yellowman (2009) by Dael Orlandersmith, Intimate Apparel by Lynn Nottage (2009–10), the musical Caroline, or Change, with lyrics by Tony Kushner and music by Jeanine Tesori (2011–12), Topdog/Underdog by Suzan Lori-Parks (2011–12), Nightmare Dream by Motion (2013–14), and The Mountaintop by Katori Hall (2014).
Black Theatre Across Canada
Winnipeg's Caribbean Theatre Workshop, founded at the University of Manitoba, and Nova Scotia's Kwacha (meaning "Dawn of a New Day" in Zambian), founded by Walter Borden in 1984, produced interesting work in the 1980s but were not able to survive into the 1990s despite critical and audience successes. The activities of these companies in trying to train and develop artists — activities "outside of the realm of professional theatre" — were deemed questionable by arts councils, while multicultural agencies rejected them because the work was "too professional."
Despite these challenges, things were promising for Black theatre and many prominent artists began to emerge. Djanet Sears' one-woman show Afrika Solo (1987) earned her a Dora nomination and she won many Canadian awards with Harlem Duet (1997), which was revived at the Neptune Theatre in 2000 and at the Stratford Festival in 2006. She also helped establish the AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival, which was held in Toronto in 2000, 2003 and 2006.
In 1988, Marvin Ishmael inaugurated We Are One Theatre Productions with Sweet Pan, a lively musical play incorporating a live steel band and carnival costumes. With a mandate to develop theatre that reflects the Caribbean Canadian experience, We Are One synthesized Caribbean storytelling traditions, steel band and calypso into its theatre and had a strong reputation for its new work for young audiences.
The Caribbean focus of We Are One augured the beginnings of a distinctly Caribbean Canadian theatre and a rising community of artists such as actor-storyteller Richardo Keens-Douglas, actor-director Amah Harris and her Theatre in the Rough company.
Other notable productions of Caribbean theatre in Canada include the sankofa trilogy, by Jamaican Canadian theatre artist d’bi.young anitafrika. Her trilogy of one-woman plays — bloodclaat: one oomaan story (2005), benu (2009)and word!sound!powah! (2010) — has been widely lauded for their bracingly original and candid document of the experience of a Jamaican woman. In 2008, anitafrika founded the anitafrika dub theatre, a mentorship program geared towards Black artists, which currently goes by the name of The Watah Theatre.
Also, the Jamaican Canadian playwright and comedian Trey Anthony’s Da Kink in my Hair,which takes place in a beauty salon in a West Indian neighbourhood of Toronto, became the first Canadian play produced at the Princess of Wales Theatre (2005).
Another notable group, Theatre Wum, also rose to prominence in the early 1990s. With a mandate "to explore African continuities," founding artistic director Colin Taylor mounted six productions between 1991 and 1994, starting with Jeff Stetson's The Meeting, about a fictional meeting between Malcolm X and Martin Luther King (1991), followed by The Radiance of the King in September of the same year, Suzan Lori-Park's Imperceptible Mutabilities in the Third Kingdom (1992), and Titus Andronicus and The Urban Donnellys (with Theatre Passe Muraille) in 1993. Taylor's rigorous experimental approach and his provocative theatrical choices earned him the John Hirsch Award for directing in 1993. In 1994, he was appointed artistic associate at Theatre Passe Muraille and he has garnered directing credits at established theatres such as the Tarragon Theatre, the Great Canadian Theatre Company (GCTC) and Alberta Theatre Projects. Taylor also adapted, in collaboration with Alison Sealy-Smith, Austin Clarke’s iconic Giller-winning novel, The Polished Hoe, to stage, which was produced by Obsidian Theatre in 2007.
The feminist Nightwood Theatre, in its efforts to develop emerging women playwrights, made significant contributions to Black Canadian theatre, producing the lively The Wonder Quartet, written by Diana Braithwaite and directed by Djanet Sears (1992), and the one-woman re-telling of creation myths, Dryland, written and performed by Pauline Peters and directed by Diane Roberts (1993). At Young People's Theatre, In Search of Dragon's Mountain, about interracial friendship in an apartheid South Africa, won a Dora Award for outstanding production in the theatre for young audiences sector (1993). And after years of effort in the small-theatre community, writer-performer George Seremba earned a Dora for outstanding new play for Come Good Rain in 1994. A searing account of life in Amin's Uganda, Come Good Rain has since been produced in Ottawa, Montréal, Los Angeles and London, England.
In Nova Scotia, Voices Black Theatre Ensemble, founded in 1990, creates and presents drama and performances that explore and celebrate the Black experience in Nova Scotia. Made up of a core group of ten performers, including actors, musicians, dancers, rap artists, storytellers, singers, writers and technicians, the company has created a number of original performance pieces including Kumbaya: The Black History Month Show, The Detention, Africville, Nova Scotia Suite and Choices in the Skin.