For her musical theatre debut as the lead in Caroline, or Change at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theatre earlier this year, the Juno-winning R&B singer Jully Black just won a Toronto Theatre Critics Association award and nabbed a Dora Mavor Moore nomination too.
Tony Kushner’s Caroline, or Change is set in Louisiana in 1963, a year of a presidential assassination, with the civil rights movement in full motion. History and America were cracking then, as they are now. Black spoke to The Globe about change, through the years and today.
You just won a Toronto Theatre Critics Association award for best lead performance. How does it feel?
To be honest, I didn’t even know that award existed. This is the beauty when it comes to being green, as I am in theatre. All of this is a breath of fresh air.
Your character, Caroline, a Black maid, is frustrated with the slow pace of change. What are your thoughts on the pace of change today?
People tell me they don’t see colour. To that I say: I need you to see my colour. If you don’t see my colour, you won’t begin to understand or be able to offer actual compassion toward what institutional racism and microaggressions my colour have caused me and the rest of my community to endure. But there’s a line in Caroline, or Change that I love. "Change come fast and change come slow. But change come.” We need to hang on to that.
The poster art for a previous production of Caroline, or Change shows Caroline as tired and frustrated. You played her, I thought, with more defiance, less resignation.
I was shown that same portrait. But that wasn’t the character as I perceived her. And that wasn’t Agatha Gordon, my mother, who was a domestic. I knew that Caroline was not a victim. I knew a woman to have the courage to divorce her husband, in that time, after enduring domestic abuse, that’s a strong woman. Because women were not leaving their husbands back then. A Christian woman at that.
On the issue of change and colonial privilege, you were involved in a controversial exchange with television personality Jeanne Beker on an episode of CBC’s Canada Reads in 2018. She said she felt attacked.
There’s a difference between anger and rage. What we’re seeing from the Black community is anger, not rage or attacking. What I went through with Jeanne Beker was two years ago and it brings tears to my eyes. If that would have happened today, I believe white people would see that for what it was at that time. So, this is the time for change and transition. We need some action.
Institutional change, yes?
Yes. On the executive level, boardroom committees and hiring pools in the school system. And radio. I haven’t had a song added to playlists since Seven Day Fool in 2007. Every white programmer says, “Eh, it’s not what we’re looking for” or “This doesn’t fit the format.” I look to the positive. I’m a television host. I’m an award-winning actress. I’m full of joy. But it doesn’t change the words and meanings of my songs. They represent a voice that’s been muted for 13 years.
On the topic of change, do you think that the concept of white privilege is more accepted by white people now?
Yes. And that’s huge. But it’s the sustainability. It cannot be a drive-by. Social media has made it easy for people to say their piece and put something up that’s going to get you a hall pass.
Listen, I had a friend send me a message saying she was here for me. This was a powerful white woman in a very large corporation who calls me a friend. I read her message, line by line, and all the microaggressions were in there. The pity. “If you need me, come to me.” I don’t need a shoulder to cry on. I’ve been wearing my skin for 42 years.
If not a shoulder, what are you looking for?
What I’m looking for, what we’re all looking for, are accomplices, not allies. If I’m robbing a bank, you’re driving the car. Allyship is one thing, but we need the white community to be our accomplices. We’re going up, you’re going up. We’re going down, you’re going down. And I want companies to talk about racism. Don’t hide it under the guise of diversity or inclusion. It’s time. It’s time.
This interview has been condensed and edited.
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