As a movement against anti-Black racism, unprecedented in size, spread worldwide after the killing of George Floyd last month, Soulpepper was one of the first major performing arts organizations in Canada to release a statement about it – and express solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
The Toronto not-for-profit theatre company was not only ahead of bigger institutions such as the Stratford Festival, the Arts Club Theatre Company in Vancouver and the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in doing so – but it also used the clearest language to examine its own complicity in what it called “systems of oppression.”
“It wasn’t until 10 years into our 20-year history that we produced a play by a Black writer, and since then we have only produced four more,” the Soulpepper statement read in part. “That is the truth and the truth is the first step towards change.”
It’s no surprise that the Canadian company that led the way in showing the industry how to respond at a difficult time is led by a Black artistic director, Weyni Mengesha – who co-signed the statement with the company’s white executive director Emma Stenning and white board chair Vanessa Morgan.
Mengesha, the directorial force behind Toronto megahits Da Kink in My Hair and Kim’s Convenience and a nearly unrivalled streak of critically acclaimed theatre productions, is the most prominent of a significant new wave of Black female theatre artists who have risen to positions of power in the past two years, both at theatre companies with culturally specific mandates and wider ones.
Their collective arrival in these roles is both overdue and just in time for a moment where, with stages shut, the theatre community expects leaders to lead not just inside of rehearsal rooms, but outside of them more than ever.
In the fall of 2019, Tanisha Taitt, a freelance director and anti-oppression educator well known for her fearless online writings about equity and inclusion, became artistic director of Cahoots, an important independent Toronto company with a focus on cultural inclusion.
Then, earlier this year, Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, a recent winner of a Toronto Theatre Critics Award for best director, was announced as the incoming artistic director at Obsidian Theatre, the Black-focused Toronto theatre company behind both popular musicals such as Caroline, or Change and conversation starters as the police-brutality drama Pass Over; she takes over from outgoing artistic director Philip Akin this summer.
In the two years since Mengesha’s appointment at Soulpepper, several other Black women have become associate artistic directors at major theatre companies too: Mel Hague, a former director of the Rhubarb Festival, joined Canadian Stage in that role; Audrey Dwyer, a multifaceted artist best known as the playwright of Calpurnia, was appointed at the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre; and this spring, director and choreographer Kimberley Rampersad was promoted to that rank at the Shaw Festival, happy to be part of what she calls “this wave of Black female artistry.”
“It’s not one, or it’s two, it’s several,” says Rampersad, whose credits include last season’s marquee mainstage six-hour staging of Bernard Shaw’s Man and Superman at the Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., repertory theatre company.
“That is a beautiful place to me. That looks like progress; that looks like a better attempt at and execution of inclusion and not just lip service."
As testimonials shared over the past two weeks by Black theatre artists in Canada using the hashtag #InTheDressingRoom have reinforced, however, there is still much work to do in defeating anti-Black racism not just in dressing rooms but in rehearsal halls and lobbies across the country. As Rampersad puts it: "We want to make the best art – and we have to realize we’re not including the best people because there are obstacles.”
“It’s wonderful to see Black women in artistic leadership,” says Taitt, who has organized recent online gatherings for Black and mixed-race artists and audience members to process the trauma of recent events. “I won’t be as truly excited as I’d like to be until I see Black women in positions of leadership at more companies that are not culturally specific or geared towards cultural diversity.”
Mengesha says, too, that individual Black artists still have to carry the weight of representation on their shoulders in many theatre contexts.
“Being the only Black leader in an organization, the only Black person in the rehearsal room, these things take an emotional toll,” the director says. “A lot of us are leaders that are trying to do artistic director work, but also have the job of diversity officer – and, at the same time, are trying to go through our own phase of mourning and healing over what’s happening.”
The breadth and depth of the Black talent to be found in Toronto’s theatre scene in particular was reinforced again this week with the announcement of the nominations for the Dora Mavor Moore Awards. Notably, Otu’s recent production of the Yoruba-myth inspired American play The Brothers Size for Soulpepper lead the entire general division with eight nods – including for its Black actors, composer, designers and director. (In the outstanding direction category, Otu’s competition includes Mengesha, nominated for her production of A Streetcar Named Desire, which was set to announce a tour before the pandemic hit in March.)
But systemic obstacles have, historically, meant that many Black artists who win awards one year can end up leaving the wider industry not long after rather than rising through the ranks of bigger theatre companies – while Black-focused theatre companies set up in the 1970s or 1980s that won critical acclaim often ended up shutting down owing to a lack of sustainable support from private donors or public funding bodies. (Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop is a notable exception – about to celebrate its 50th anniversary.)
“Leadership in theatre didn’t look like me until Weyni, two years ago,” Taitt says, noting it took her a long time to imagine herself running a company – and that she didn’t apply for the Cahoots job until she was encouraged to do so, despite having just come off a hit with her production of The Seat Next to the King when the position opened up.
Mengesha, who took over a theatre company that underwent very public fallout for not pro-actively tackling sexism and racism in its culture, is glad to now have colleagues among Toronto’s artistic director community with whom she already has a shorthand to talk about the unique challenges of being a Black artistic leader – and who she can strategize with.
“I pick up the phone and call Mumbi all the time, I pick up the phone and call Tanisha – it means a lot that I have relationships with folks who understand inherently what the struggles are,” she says, something both Taitt and Otu echo in return. “Obviously, it helps with representation for younger artists to see us – but it also helps for our own mental health.”
For Otu, the work that theatres need to continue to do regarding representation and inclusion does not stop at the door of culturally specific companies such as Obsidian either. As she prepares to take over the company, she looks forward to continuing a conversation about what kind of Black stories the company is telling and exploring diversity within what she calls Black “communities.”
Having moved to Canada from Kenya at the age of 14, Otu identifies as a Black Kenyan-Ugandan-Canadian. “I did not identify as Black until my family immigrated to Canada,” she explains. “It’s such a lived experience because as soon as you’re here, the police don’t stop and ask where are you from before they shoot you. … The nuance of the conversation is erased by the systems.”
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