The Wilberforce Hotel, Sean Dixon's fascinating new history play, isn't the first time blackface has been seen on stage in Blyth, Ont.
Next time you visit the Blyth Memorial Hall – built in 1920 to honour locals who served in the Great War, and home to the Blyth Festival of Canadian plays since 1975 – be sure to check out a display of faded photographs that have been hanging downstairs near the pay-by-donation concession tables since the 1990s.
One sticks out: At first glance, it looks distorted, with the faces of performers smudged or blurred, their eyes and mouths perhaps later carved out with a fingernail.
Look closer, however, and you'll see this eerie photo is of a minstrel show – staged at Memorial Hall in the 1920s, complete with three dozen actors in blackface. Four white men and three white women stand in front of these ghastly caricatures, looking proud and entirely unperturbed.
Here's a forgotten part of Canadian theatre history – in black and white.
The Wilberforce Hotel, currently playing on the same stage, is a reminder that the racist form of entertainment known as minstrelsy wasn't only popular south of the border – and it's also a reminder that black men and women have left Canada for the United States due to oppression, not just vice versa.
It begins with blackface: Robert (Eli Ham) and Henry (Greg Gale), two white minstrels from Toronto, apply burnt cork to their skin and don fright wigs, then perform a condescending song and dance as black caricatures.
It's the 1830s – and the two performers are on the run after a card game gone awry. They end up holing up at a hotel north of London, run by a black man named Austin Steward (a strong Marcel Stewart).
After Austin discovers that his lodgers are minstrels, he asks them to do their routine for him. When they hesitate, Austin offers to perform for them first – telling them the story of how he came to run a hotel in Canada West.
Austin's was an extremely eventful life – and Dixon's play is based on the historical figure's 1857 autobiography, Twenty-Two Years a Slave, and Forty Years a Freeman. He spent his early years as a house slave in Virginia; then became a free and prosperous businessman in Rochester, NY; and eventually moved north to help build the Wilberforce Colony in Canada with his wife Milly (a moving, if underused Sophia Walker) in the early 1830s.
It's the Canadian chapter of Austin's life – where the black settlement of Wilberforce is undone by a slippery character preaching African-American exodus named Israel Lewis (Peter Bailey), and the double dealing of the Canada Company – that Dixon's play is mostly focused on.
The Wilberforce Hotel is a risky work in our times – a new play by a white playwright based on a black history, one that includes a blackface routine, no less. No wonder it sat unproduced for over a decade until Gil Garratt, Blyth's new artistic director, took over the festival.
But Dixon is clearly conscious of questions of appropriation – and explores them through the play.
Robert and Henry's minstrel act is actually about two "coloured" men escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad, while Henry (played with gentle curiosity and impressive vaudevillian skill by Gale) is fascinated by black culture and wants to learn from Austin how to make his act more authentic. It's all very ironic – and doesn't seem aimed only at well-meaning artists in the 19th century, but ours as well.
Instead, the problems within The Wilberforce Hotel are more prosaic. Dixon is, on occasion, too in love with the ornate, old-timey language he puts in his character's mouths. And his decision to have the past revealed partly through hallucinations and ghostly visitations also comes at the expense of clarity – everything comes into sharper focus in the second act when the story is told more conventional flashbacks.
Structural complaints aside, The Wilberforce Hotel is an engaging unearthing of a little-known part of Ontario history – and its filled with complex characters of both races. (Even Austin's old master, played compellingly by Eli Ham.)
As for the potentially problematic minstrel routines, director Philip Akin – who runs Obsidian Theatre Company in Toronto – has given them the necessary gravitas and appropriate context so that they aren't about titillating with taboos.
The off-putting blackface performances provide a powerful frame for Dixon's show that reinforces its themes – and double as a necessary confrontation of Blyth Memorial Hall's own history, so no one can pass the photo in the hall downstairs blithely again.
Runs until Aug. 8 at the Blyth Festival Theatre in Blyth, Ont.