Every summer since 1989, a dozen actors dressed as Founding Fathers of Confederation have walked the streets of Charlottetown, telling stories to passersby about the Charlottetown Conference of 1864.
Their vignettes, improvised plays and organized city tours highlighted PEI’s Victorian history. As years passed, however, some of the troupe’s members grew frustrated that the stories of the Island’s Black, Acadian, Mi’kmaq and Gaelic communities were being left untold.
“When I joined the program, all our stories only showed the good that came from the Charlottetown Conference,” said Cameron Bennett-MacDonald, a member of the troupe known as the Confederation Players program since 2013. “There wasn’t a re-evaluation of our heritage. I think PEI has buried a lot of its history.”
The pandemic prompted a rethink. With the troupe’s usual activities halted this past summer to help curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, the players instead spent the last four months researching PEI history, and interacting with the province’s under-represented and silenced communities. Each performer then each penned a 70-page report about their experiences, with proposals about how to incorporate the stories they’ve collected into new material in 2021.
Mr. MacDonald, who usually serves as the program’s Artistic Supervisor and makes decisions on casting for vignettes, spent his summer researching Gaeltacht – PEI’s Gaelic-speaking areas.
“A third of PEI’s population spoke Gaelic as the Confederation was happening,” he said. "But they were forced to speak English in education and politics, and [their] language was condemned and mocked. As a result, half that community on PEI has disappeared.
“What I want to do with the research was to find the parts [of that community] that are left in the province and put them in the forefront next year.”
Mr. MacDonald and the rest of the troupe, which is funded by the Charlottetown Confederation Centre of the Arts, took part in immersive team events to inform their research. The players learned about wigwam building with Mi’kmaq community leader Elder Junior Peter-Paul, they visited the site of the deportation of the Acadian peoples in Port-LaJoye, and they followed workshops with Jim Hornby, a historian from PEI and author of Black Islanders, and Edward MacDonald, an Island history professor at the University of Prince Edward Island. They also spent time in Gaelic and Mi’kmaq communities.
Dr. MacDonald has served as a guide and consultant to the Players for several years. He said that, in his conversations with this year’s players, he was impressed by the body of knowledge they had unearthed.
“The relationship with Indigenous issues is very prominent in their study, as well as with other minority and marginalized groups. They are coming to grips with subject matter that has been left out of the main story in ways they’ve never done before, and that is tremendously to their credit.”
Sarah Denman-Wood, the troupe’s associate producer, said she feels a sense of duty to share those new stories in the summer of 2021, along with the old ones.
“We encounter so many people and tourists in what we do,” said Ms. Denman-Wood. “It’s our responsibility to share PEI’s full history with them. Moving forward, it will be about storytelling, not just entertainment.”
Once the troupe finished researching, they congregated to share ideas about how to tell the stories they learned to a wider audience. She said this editing process, which sometimes dealt with uncomfortable content, led to awkward conversations.
“There were some hard topics of discussions, like slavery on the Island,” said Denman-Wood. “The challenge was to make sure the space was safe to start conversations without feeling uncomfortable or afraid.”
Kierrah Titus of Syracuse, NY, joined the troupe in May. In New York, she was president of her college’s Women of Color club, and was a member of the Black Cultural Society and the Caribbean Students Association. Now, she wants to champion the communities she has met on the Island, and see her summer’s work translate to more complete storytelling in 2021.
“There is so much history tied to the Black community on PEI,” said Ms. Titus. “Those are stories we have to tell.”
Ms. Titus worked closely with the Black Cultural Society of PEI and their president Tamara Steele, a well-respected advocate for the Island’s Black community. Ms. Steele said the Players, members of the Society and other members of the Black community formed focus groups to mine stories. She said the work is promising, but still preliminary.
“The main thing is that it has to be a collaboration between the Players and the descendants of the people in these stories,” said Steele. “The conversations about what stories to tell and how to tell them next year are starting and ongoing.”
Ms. Titus said those focus groups helped her learn about The Bog, a community in Charlottetown’s West End where freed slaves settled in the early 19th century, after struggling to assimilate in other areas of the city. And the story of Dembo Suckles, a member of The Bog and advocate for basic human rights, who is the only enslaved person to have his own gravestone in the province.
“Moving forward,” said Ms. Titus, “I think our troupe will be a lot about balance. We still want to showcase stories around Confederation and our Fathers, but we have to showcase the Fathers without erasing other people’s history – without playing into certain power dynamics.”
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