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Black Theatre Workshop provides role models who reflect a community

December, 2010

Recently, Isabelle Racicot, co-host of TVA’s morning show 2 Filles le matin, remarked that she grew up watching Oprah because she could identify with her. “In the French market, and even in the English market in Quebec, I didn’t see a lot of people who looked like me, meaning ‘black,’ on TV. … There’s still not a lot.” Racicot says that for young minority kids, it’s important to “see their reflection and feel that they’re part of this community.”

Since 1970, the Black Theatre Workshop has filled this need through theatre, providing opportunities to young black actors and promoting black playwrights’ work.

If there was a defining moment that sparked the birth of Canada’s oldest black theatre company, it may have happened in the mid-’60s, when McGill University held an International Day, inviting different groups to present their culture. Clarence Bayne, who would become the theatre’s first artistic director, recalls a performance of a traditional Caribbean dance, completely taken out of context and stripped of its meaning and dignity. “This was a dance usually done at funerals, a serious village dance,” he recalls. “That incident fired up our engines and we decided: We’re going to do something about it.”

The Black Theatre Workshop has a strong history, including productions of My Sweet Charlie (above) Photos courtesy of the Black Theatre Workshop

Amid discussions on world politics as they related to culture, the Trinidad and Tobago Association was formed, and within that a drama committee with a mandate to express Caribbean culture. “Black Theatre Workshop is a direct creation of the drama group,” Bayne says.

The group’s first two productions drew from three pillars of Caribbean culture: calypso, steel band and mass, or masque/carnaval.

“Calypso is a critical comment about life and relationships,” Bayne explains. “It could be comic or tragic or explosive.”

Mass or carnaval is street theatre, relying heavily on dance and costume, while steel band has its origins in oil drums that were left by the army on the shore in Trinidad, which aspiring musicians turned into beautiful instruments by hammering them until they produced musical tones.

In 1972, the group approached Jeff Henry, a Trinidadian and choreographer with the National Theatre School, to work on Lloris Elliott’s How Now Black Man. The play drew on African symbols, philosophies and concepts.

“Henry said the play suggested so much dance and action that he would do it, but not as a Trinidad production.”

The play was produced under the name of Black Workshop in 1972. “BTW was created in response to the awakening (to black renaissance, power and culture) that were taking place in the world,” Bayne said.

Today the theatre has regular productions every year, brings theatre to schools, and has a training program for youth of all backgrounds.

Tyrone Benskin has been the theatre’s artistic director since 2005, and is devoted to highlighting African Canadian literature.

“There isn’t an outlet and support for African Canadian writers,” he says. “There is difficulty in mainstream theatre programming work by black writers. Though a significant number of our loyal audience is not black, it’s getting to the point that we need to convince other companies that works by African Canadian artists are as viable as any other.”

Citing Sydney Poitier as the reason he became an actor, Benskin made a decision very early on in his career, a decision he encourages all young black actors to make.

“I don’t do drug dealers or butlers and I’m iffy on playing slaves. While there are some beautiful stories that need to be told, if it’s just to have a slave in the background, I’m not interested.”

Through daring and persistence, the strategy of saying “no” worked in Benskin’s favour. “It was a slow, individual, one-case-at-a-time accomplishment, but I’ve been doing it for 25 years and 90 per cent (of my characters) are non black-specific roles.”

Most recently, Benskin played a preacher in Inherit the Wind, produced at the Segal Centre and directed by Miles Potter. “This director was quite brave in looking past the colour issue and adding that element to the play.”

Besides supporting black talent, the BTW is a major player on the Montreal English arts scene. “We have a certain experience and a certain window we should show to the world,” Bayne says. “It is our responsibility to be ourselves.” BTW celebrates its annual Vision Celebration on Saturday, January 29. 514-932-1104 ext. 226



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