In 2021, Obsidian Theatre will turn 21 years old – and its brand-new artistic director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu is not letting the pandemic keep her from planning a big, cross-country party to mark the occasion of its hitting the international age of majority.
21 Black Futures is the name of Otu’s first major project since becoming the leader of Canada’s foremost theatre company dedicated to the Black voice in July.
She has commissioned 21 Black playwrights from coast to coast to coast and different generations to write monodramas in response to the question, “What is the future of Blackness?”
These one-person plays will be performed by 21 actors under the direction of 21 directors – and filmed for a virtual premiere on a to-be-announced national streaming platform in February.
Any newly installed artistic director’s mission is to think of the future – and so Otu already had a version of the question at the centre of 21 Black Futures in her mind even before COVID-19 displaced Obsidian’s immediate production plans and a renewed protest movement against anti-Black racism hit the streets.
But the roiling uncertainty of the times impelled Otu, who is fresh off a Dora Award win for her direction of The Brothers Size at Soulpepper, to throw the question out to as diverse a group of Black artists in Canada as possible. “On a personal level, it felt like a way to heal was through new Black stories and through connecting to Black artists and to giving them a place, and a way to respond,” she says.
The writers she signed up for 21 Black Futures include major figure Lawrence Hill (The Book of Negroes) and Djanet Sears (Harlem Duet), as well as a number of significant playwrights who are, like Obsidian, based in Toronto, such as Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, Tawiah Ben M’Carthy,Joseph Jomo Pierre and Amanda Parris.
But the project as a whole has also attempted to draw on as much of the breadth of the Black experience in Canada as possible – and includes Miali Coley-Sudlovenick, a Inuk-Jamaican writer based in Nunavut; Stephie Mazunya, a francophone theatre artist from Montreal; and the Halifax-based playwrights Shauntay Grant and Jacob Sampson.
Since its founding in 2000, Obsidian has always had a national mandate – but Otu says the pandemic presents an opportunity to really lean into it. Her lived experience of having moved to Victoria from Kenya as a teenager and being one of the only Black students in her school made her particularly want to reach out to and include artists such as the young poets KP Dennis in Victoria and Peace Akintade in Saskatoon.
“Researching them and talking to them, I was truly thinking back to like what it’s like to grow to be in a place like that that’s not Toronto-centric, where you’re not surrounded by so many other Black artists doing so many different things,” Otu says. “For me, the Black experience is local, and it is global.”
As she has been going over the first drafts, Otu has been struck by how different these visions of the future of Blackness have been; some of the plays are very personal, others depict utopias or dystopias, and the settings vary from Canada to China to outer space.
“We have to be all in the same boat right now in terms of fighting for racial justice, and we want a better future… but in terms of the pieces, I wouldn’t say that they’re, you know, Kumbaya pieces,” says Otu. “They’re complex and they’re very diverse in terms of their lens into the future … That’s what’s exciting: No one is writing about the same thing.”
While the coming months for Obsidian will focus on this future digital project, Otu is also thinking about the actual physical, in-person future of her company, which does not have its own venue, but rents theatres for its productions.
Back in June, the Parliamentary Black Caucus, which includes members of Parliament and senators from various political parties, released a statement on systemic racism that included a call for capital investments in Black Canadian cultural organizations. “The most stable and successful cultural organizations in our communities are those which own the buildings where their activities are housed,” the statement read.
Otu says she is in agreement with the Parliamentary Black Caucus, noting that “space is power.” “Until we have our own venue at Obsidian, we cannot be truly free to create the work we want to create, when we want to create it,” she says. “Without having our own space, we have to continue to depend on historically white institutions that own venues to determine where we might fit into their programming agenda.”
There’s nothing to announce yet, but Obsidian is in conversation about a “few different partnerships” that could see the company have its own venue in the “near future,” says Otu.
More information about 21 Black Futures including its lineup of actors, directors and streaming platform will be announced later this year.
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