Black Theatre Workshop | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Black Theatre Workshop

The TTA set up a dramatic committee that organized public readings of plays by Earl Lovelace, Errol John and Derek Walcott (Nobel laureate 1993).
<em>The Nutmeg Princess</em>
Warona Setshwaelo in The Nutmeg Princess, 2011. (courtesy Black Theatre Workshop)
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(l to r) Lindsay Owen Pierre, Omari Newton, Chimwemwe Miller and Quincy Armorer in A Common Man's Guide to Loving Women, 2002. (courtesy Black Theatre Workshop)
<em>The Dutchman</em>
Stephanie Breton and Craig Thomas in a scene from The Dutchman in 2010. (courtesy Black Theatre Workshop)

Founded in 1971, Montréal's Black Theatre Workshop (BTW) is Canada's oldest extant black professional theatre company. BTW's roots extend back to the middle of the 20th century. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Canada saw an influx of West Indian immigration, some of it composed of students attending Canadian universities on Commonwealth programs. In 1964, to counter the perception that the West Indies was of little or low culture, Montréal's growing West Indian community founded the Trinidad and Tobago Association (TTA) dedicated to the promotion of West Indian culture.

The TTA set up a dramatic committee that organized public readings of plays by Earl Lovelace, Errol John and Derek Walcott (Nobel laureate 1993). The interest generated by these events and the arrival of director Johnny Cayonne, who had worked alongside Walcott, incited the association to produce, between 1966 and 1968, Dance Bongo by Errol Hill and The Sea at Dauphin by Walcott, as well as 2 original "calypsoperas,"Calypso in the Flesh and Fact and Fancy, which attempted to summarize West Indian art and culture.

In the wake of the 1969 Sir George Williams Computer Riot, which had been sparked by allegations of institutional racism, some TTA members became increasingly uncomfortable with a mandate and repertoire that were predominantly nostalgic and apolitical. While remaining under the aegis of the TTA, Cynthia Allen's "Black Workshop" oversaw the production of Lorris Elliot's original play, How Now Black Man, directed by Jeff Henry at the Centaur Theatre in 1970.

The following year, the Workshop obtained its independence from the TTA and became the Black Theatre Workshop. The company's mandate was to provide a theatrical venue for authors, artists and actors of Montréal's black community; its aim, to develop "an independent repertory theatre in the black experience." Jeff Henry and Errol Sitahal briefly headed the company. But finding the necessary financing proved difficult, and between 1971 and 1973 the BTW produced only one play, Walcott's Dream on Monkey Mountain.

In 1974, artistic director Clarence Bayne secured a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts. From 1974 to 1976, the revitalized company produced plays by established authors Wole Soyinka, Yvonne Greer and Eric Roach as well as new works by Bayne (The Black Experience), David Edgecombe (For Better For Worse and Sonuvabitch) and Errol Sitahal (Sea Shango).

In 1976, the Canada Council (CCA) deemed Black Theatre Workshop a professional theatre company. But institutional recognition turned sour when the company had to favour hiring professionals over its ensemble players in order to maintain access to CCA financing. The BTW thus found itself somewhat alienated from its community base while having to compete with mainstream theatres for the favour of a diminishing English-language audience.

To broaden its appeal while preserving its mandate, the Workshop, under artistic director Terry Donald, drew from the repertoire of New York's critically acclaimed Negro Theatre Ensemble. Hence productions of modern classics like Jean Genet's The Blacks (1976) and Lorraine Hansberry's A Raisin in the Sun (1979) supported the development of new works such as Edgecombe's Strong Currents (1976) and Lorris Elliot's A Li'lle Bit O'Somet'in (1978).

During the 1980s and 1990s, under Don Jordan's, then Winston Sutton's direction, Workshop productions - including Ntozake Shange's For Colored Girls ... (1984), James Weldon Johnson's God's Trombones (1986) and George C. Wolfe's The Colored Museum (1988) - more openly reflected black contemporary issues. In 1986, the Workshop launched an annual award ceremony - the Vision Youth Awards and Martin Luther King Jr. Award - celebrating the artistic contribution and achievements of Montréal's black community.

In 1983, with Martin Luther Who? by Clarence Bayne and Dwight Backie, the company began touring schools. Such tours became a regular feature of subsequent seasons and led to the collective Children of Kush Arising (1995), directed by dancer Fleurette Fernando, who, at 23, was the company's youngest artistic director (she received the 1995 John Hirsch Award for her work with the BTW).

Following Fernando's departure in 1996, the company went through another period of financial duress and soul-searching. Though Montréal's black community was larger than ever, it was also more diversified. Furthermore, new immigrants were mostly French speaking and of Haitian origin. In response to this trend, the company began producing bilingual plays (The Crossword/Le Carrefour by Kossi Efoui) and even renamed itself "Théâtre BTW" (1992). But despite the company's best efforts (Kouloumé et ses frères by Franck Sylvestre, 2001), the new arrivals mostly shunned theatre and did not recognize the Workshop as their own.

Under artistic directors Nancy Delva (1997-98), Kate Bligh (1998-2000) and Rachel Van Fossen (2001-04), the Workshop emphasized its commitment to community and education. After receiving a salutary $100 000 grant from the CCA Millennium Arts Fund in 1999, the BTW invested as many resources into developing its workshops (YouthWorks: Young Performers Initiative Program), school tours and community outreach projects (Shifting Ground/Créons un monde, 2003-06) as in its mainstage plays.

In 2003, the Workshop was granted resident status at the Montréal Arts Interculturels (MAI) Centre, ending the BTW's 32-year history as an itinerant theatre company. Though it still has occasional recourse to the Centaur Theatre (A Raisin in the Sun, 2010) and Segal Centre (Le Code Noir by George Boyd, 2009), the company has developed and premiered most of its later work - such as Wade in the Water by Boyd (2003), Blacks Don't Bowl by Vadney Haynes (2006) and Blood Claat by D'bi Young (2008) - at the MAI Centre.

Under Tyrone Benskin's direction (2005-11), the BTW further consolidated its seasonal offering, consisting of a mainstage play, a school tour, a play in development, a playwrights' forum (and spoken word poetry festival) and the Vision Awards Celebration and YouthWorks program. In May 2011, Benskin resigned as artistic director of the Workshop after his election to the federal government as an NDP Member of Parliament. This passage into mainstream politics by one of its principal players certainly fulfils one of the Workshop's historical aspirations, which was to seek cultural recognition for its community and give it voice.

In August 2011, experienced stage actor Quincy Armorer, a graduate of Concordia's theatre program and of the Stratford Conservatory's classical theatre training program, accepted the position of artistic director.