As a theatre lover and a playwright, Amanda Parris desperately wants to see more of their works on stage
Black Light is a weekly column by Governor General Award-winning writer Amanda Parris that spotlights, champions and challenges art and popular culture that is created by Black people and/or centres Black people.
Theatre is an inherently ephemeral art form. If a play is never remounted or never published, it is destined to exist in the memories of those who witnessed its original production. It’s a fact that makes theatre one of the most magical of artistic mediums — but it also gives it the potential to be the most tragic.
The first time I watched ahdri zhina mandiela’s critically important 1997 documentary on/black/stage women, I remember feeling an overwhelming sense of awe and sadness. It is a rare and precious time capsule, filled with the testimonies of almost 30 Black theatre artists, women who were trying to make a living in Toronto.
In the film, mandiela captures a thriving Black female theatre scene. We meet playwrights and lighting designers, performance artists and community educators, puppeteers and theatre collectives. The first time I watched the doc, I felt an overwhelming sense of FOMO. The artists talk about a wide range of productions they’d worked on, and I had never read any of their plays or seen any of their works on the stage. The question of why has haunted me ever since.
I was inspired to begin writing for the theatre because that was where I saw Black Canadian women receiving — and building — platforms for their dramatic stories. Their marked absence in film and television only made their work in theatre all the more intriguing and powerful. I never attended theatre school, but I began to study the crafts of acting and writing through community theatre programs and residencies run and created by Black women. At the time, the world that mandiela captured in her documentary was still thriving, growing with each generation in a Black theatre culture that was grounded in the knowledge that we have to pull others up as we climb.
Progress is slow, but when I reflect on the challenges that the women in the documentary spoke about 23 years ago, I do see evidence of small shifts and changes. In August of this year, when Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu takes her post as the new artistic director of Obsidian Theatre, she’ll be the third Black woman after Weyni Mengesha (Soulpepper) and Tanisha Taitt (Cahoots) to hold the top creative position at a Toronto theatre company. This week, writer/director Natasha Adiyana Morris opens her debut play in Toronto, The Negroes Are Congregating. Andrea Scott’s Controlled Damage just closed in Halifax, and Marcia Johnson’s Serving Elizabeth recently finished a run in Kamloops, B.C.
But in spite of this momentum, there is something that continues to temper my excitement. There’s very little digital documentation of the women who introduced me to theatre, and over the years, I’ve become increasingly perturbed by this observation. Google searches produce little to no evidence of the many productions, programs and companies that predated the internet era. And because so few plays have been published, and even fewer have been remounted, these works — and these women — are in danger of disappearing from memory.
In a small attempt to rectify this, I’ve crafted a list of 31 Black Canadian women playwrights. This list is not comprehensive, but it does reveal a pattern: many of these artists have had to wear multiple hats, and some have had to build their own platforms to show their work.
There’s a moment in on/black/stage/women where the actress Amah Harris recounts something legendary director Vera Cudjoe once told her: “The situation in Canada is that it’s a pioneering situation. People can’t just walk into stuff — they have to develop it. They have to build it for themselves.”
In my small attempt to move us past pioneering, I want to encourage audiences to learn these names. I want educators to buy and teach their published plays. And perhaps most importantly, as a theatre lover and creator, I desperately want companies to remount their works.
Natasha Adiyana Morris
Natasha Adiyana Morris has made her mark on the Toronto theatre scene by creating a vital platform for other Black emerging playwrights through her organization Piece of Mine Arts. Through their annual festival and programs dedicated to Black playwrights, it’s enabled many artists to test out new material (including me). Her own writing balances fierce political observations with hilarious wit and a signature rhythm. Morris’s play The Negroes Are Congregating is on stage in Toronto now.
Key works: The Negroes Are Congregating, half n’ half
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