Canada’s oldest Black theatre, Black Theatre Workshop, is kicking off its 50th year this Friday with a live-streamed play reading, setting the stage for what might be an entirely virtual season.
The reading will introduce viewers to Sanctuary, a play currently in development written by Black Theatre Workshop’s artistic associate Lydie Dubuisson. Sanctuary tells the story of a teenage girl caught between cultures, searching for answers about faith and destiny through conversations with her loved ones and with God.
Dubuisson says that while the play is not autobiographical, it is inspired by her upbringing in an evangelical Haitian family in Montreal’s South Shore. She delves into the singularities of that experience in Sanctuary, and how it differs from that of other young Montrealers.
“The play is really inspired by my experience of growing up in a very conservative environment and the expectations for young girls in those communities,” she explains. “You’re still in Quebec, you’re still in modern times, you still have access to every single device that your fellow students have, but you live in a very different reality at your home and at your church.”
Sanctuary blends English and Creole, which is common in much of Dubuisson’s work. “Whenever I work on something very personal like this one, Creole is always a character,” she says.
The use of language in Sanctuary is a way for Dubuisson to create a space of reflection on the complexities of identity and of community in the diaspora. One character, an elder, speaks English but will address the protagonist in Creole, which Dubuisson says is revealing of age-based etiquette in Haitian speech: adults are permitted to speak Creole to children, but the same doesn’t always work in reverse.
“That is one thing that I keep in my plays, because I know there is a community in Montreal that is ready to receive that and is going to understand it, just like there’s another part of the community that is going to observe it as something very interesting to learn and to figure out what this culture is like,” Dubuisson says. “That’s what’s fun about writing our own stories, that we get to put our own realities onto the page and to see how it inspires others, how it touches others.”
After the live stream reading on Friday at 3 p.m., Dubuisson will be working on transferring the play into French for a reading with Théatre aux Écuries in May. She uses the term “transfer” rather than “translate” because she says that in the process, her characters often discover they have more to say, so the story continues to deepen and develop. After that, she hopes a multilingual production could be on the horizon for Sanctuary.
“I think Montreal is ready for that,” she says, lamenting that plays produced in both French and English are in short supply despite the city’s bilingualism.
Though they have had to switch to an online-only format unless public safety measures ease up, Black Theatre Workshop will be celebrating its 50th anniversary this year. This comes right on the tail of some really good news announced in December: the theatre company will be joining the National Arts Centre as a co-curating company in residence for the 2021–2022 season. This will allow them to use half of the English theatre’s programming resources for that year, paving the way for increased visibility for Black artists and creators, and more space to tell Black stories.
Dubuisson expressed awe that the company has been in existence for so long, and honour that she gets to be a part of the 50th anniversary season.
“It’s incredibly humbling because discovering Black Theatre Workshop made me realize that not only am I allowed to be talented and love theatre, I may actually have a role to do with theatre, I may actually have space to maybe even create,” she says. “Because for a lot of people, when you don’t see yourself on stage, then you don’t even imagine yourself as a creator because there’s nothing that looks like you.”
The live stream can be viewed on Friday, Jan. 15 at 3 p.m. on Black Theatre Workshop’s Facebook page and YouTube channel. The theatre company will be hosting a virtual fundraiser event celebrating Black excellence in Montreal on Jan. 30, with more information available here. ■
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