It's Black History Month and we're celebrating the Black theatre artists presented on our stages throughout the years.
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Deborah Cox is a singer, songwriter and actor. Raised in Scarborough, she began performing in her early teens, quickly becoming a backing vocalist for Celine Dion and then a multi-award winning recording star. Her foray into acting, both in film and on stage, led to her starring role in the Broadway musical Jekyll & Hyde, which played at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in 2012. Also on Broadway, she starred in the Elton John musical, Aida. She toured North America as Rachel Marron in the musical stage adaptation of The Bodyguard and as the title character in the new musical Josephine, which tells the story of Josephine Baker.
DOUGLAS TURNER WARD
Douglas Turner Ward was an actor, director, playwright and passionate champion of Black theatre. He starred as Walter Lee Younger in A Raisin in the Sun at the Royal Alex in 1960. He had understudied that role, which was played by Sidney Poitier, in the play’s original Broadway production in 1959. When the play went on a North American tour, Douglas Turner Ward took over the part. While touring in Raisin he met young Black theatre artists across the continent and realized how much talent they had and how little opportunity there was for them. In 1966, he wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times entitled American Theater: For Whites Only? in which he promoted the idea of a repertory company dedicated to Black theatre. The article made a huge impact and in 1967 together with actor Robert Hooks and theatre manager Gerald Krone he co-founded the Negro Ensemble Company, off-Broadway at St. Mark’s Playhouse. Immediately, the company made a significant impact on theatre in New York and then around the world. It premiered plays by Black writers that went on to win Obie, Tony and Pulitzer awards. A Soldier's Play, The River Niger, Ceremonies in Dark Old Men and Zooman and The Sign are just a few of the plays the company premiered. It trained and nurtured three generations of Black actors, many of whom went on to international acclaim; among them, Denzel Washington, Samuel L. Jackson, Angela Bassett, Louis Gossett Jr. and Phylicia Rashad. The company is still going strong. Sadly, Douglas Turner Ward died on February 20th at the age of 90. His legacy lives on.
THE JOHNSON SIBLINGS
Molly, Taborah and Clark Johnson got their first professional showbiz gigs in Porgy and Bess at the Royal Alex in 1965. This local production of the famous musical was looking for children to join the company. One day, Ed Mirvish was walking along Markham Street, just outside his store Honest Ed’s in an area he had named Mirvish Village because of the artists’ colony he had created there, when he ran into the Johnson family. He spoke to the parents and told them about the casting of children. Molly, Taborah and Clark ended up in the production as the children of Catfish Row in Charleston, SC. It sparked their interest in performing and all three went on to acclaimed careers. Molly began by studying at the National Ballet School and then became a Juno Award-winning singer and one of the country’s leading jazz chanteuses. To honour her history with the Royal Alex, she had the launch concert of her 2014 recording, Because of Billie, at the theatre. Taborah continued acting and was a member of the original Canadian company of Hair, which, in 1970, set a record for the longest running show in Toronto history. She went on to star in many other stage shows, films and TV series. Clark began acting in film and TV, and starred in Homicide: Life on the Street and The Wire. He ended up directing episodes for both of these acclaimed and groundbreaking series as well as and for many other TV shows and films.
THE ADVENTURES OF A BLACK GIRL IN SEARCH OF GOD
The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God by Djanet Sears premiered in 2002 in a co-production between Obsidian Theatre and Nightwood Theatre. The play was Obsidian’s inaugural production; the company is now celebrating its 21st year with 21 short plays that are streaming free on CBC’s Gem service.
Adventures played at Harbourfront Theatre and it received stellar reviews. David Mirvish saw the production and immediately sought to include it in one of his future seasons. He decided the play was better served by remaining at Harbourfront, which is a black box theatre with 300 seats, but in order to accommodate his entire subscription base it would need to play for 26 weeks.
Under the auspices of Mirvish, Adventures returned to Harbourfront on October 28, 2003 and played until March 21, 2004. Set in contemporary times in the historical community of Negro Creek, located just south of Owen Sound in Grey County and established early in the 19th century by African Americans who had fought as loyalists in the War of 1812, the play tells the story of Rainey, a medical doctor who is mourning the tragic death of her young daughter. Her husband, Michael, a minister, cannot offer solace because Rainey seems to have lost her faith. Not helping matters is her elderly father, Abendigo, who is suffering from congestive heart disease yet is determined, with the help of his friends, to “liberate” some of the remaining relics of Canada’s racist past, such as the lawn statues of jockeys, in dangerous midnight raids. Told in story, song and movement, Adventures weaves a rich tapestry of past and present to explore history, family and faith. The production featured a cast of 21 that included many prominent Black performers. Alison Sealy-Smith, one of Canada’s best actors, starred as Rainey in the original production. For the Mirvish engagement the role was played by Karen Robinson, who also has an illustrious resume with performances across the country, including at the Stratford Festival and in the Studio 180 production of Stuff Happens at the Royal Alex, and a TV career with credits such as Schitt’s Creek. Walter Borden, an esteemed actor originally from Nova Scotia, starred as Abendingo. David Collins, another renowned and busy actor, starred as Michael. The beloved Jackie Richardson, acclaimed as both an actor and singer, provided her considerable talents in both disciplines. Adventures was a one of a kind theatrical experience that richly rewarded its audience.
Josephine Baker was a Black American dancer, singer and entertainer who became the first global showbiz superstar of the 20th century. She and her dance company performed at the Royal Alex in 1964, towards the end of her illustrious career. From her first appearance in 1925 on stage at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées, she was a sensation. The Parisian audiences saw her as the embodiment of the Jazz Age, youth, hedonism and freedom. In fact, Baker herself had come to Paris to find freedom and to escape the racism that she had suffered at the hands of white society in St. Louis, her birthplace, and New York, where she was a chorus dancer in the musical review Shuffle Along. She would eventually renounce her US citizenship and become a French nationalist, even serving her adopted country during WWII as a spy, ambulance driver and entertainer of the Free France Airforce in North Africa. At the height of her career she was the richest entertainer in the world, commanding astronomical sums for her spectacular musical reviews. In 1936 she was lured back to the US to star in a Ziegfeld Follies review on Broadway, but she found that the US had not changed. One night, after a performance, she was refused service at the Stork Club. Her public calls of discrimination were met with a backlash from many powerful people in the media, notably the notorious Walter Winchell, who launched a lethal campaign against her. She left the show and went back to France where she opened her own nightclub. Her income also allowed her to build a better life for others. Unable to have her own children, after WWII she adopted a dozen orphans of various nationalities, races and religions. She called them her “rainbow tribe. She wanted to prove that humans can be raised to love each other and that racism was a human-made construct. To house her large family, she bought a chateau on a 1.2M square meter estate in the Dordogne Valley. She continued to perform and tour the world, always returning home to France. But the cost of the estate’s upkeep and some bad investments drove her to bankruptcy. Princess Grace of Monaco, who was at the Stork Club on that fateful night when Baker was refused service and had witnessed how badly Baker had been treated, invited her to Monaco. There she arranged to have some leading booking agents come to Monaco and see Baker perform. This led to a renewed interest in her and she started touring again. She eventually bought a home near Monaco. In 1975, to mark her 50th year in showbiz, Prince Rainier and Princess Grace of Monaco and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis financed a new show at the Bobino Theatre in Paris. The opening night audience included Sophia Loren, Mick Jagger, Shirley Bassey, Diana Ross, and Liza Minnelli. There wasn’t a second night. Baker was found days later in her bed, surrounded by newspapers with the reviews of her show. She had had a cerebral hemorrhage and was in a coma. She died in hospital on April 12, 1975 at the age of 68. She received a full French military state funeral with a huge procession at L'Église de la Madeleine, the only American-born woman so honoured.
WAYNE ST. JOHN
Wayne St. John is a musician, singer, composer and actor. He got his big break as an original member of the “Mississauga Tribe”, the name adopted by the cast of the Canadian premiere production of Hair: The American Tribal Love-Rock Musical that played from 1969 to 1971 at the Royal Alex. Hair broke many barriers in theatre and society. Most of all it promoted a culture of inclusion and respect for everyone. Born in Toronto, St. John spent his childhood in Bermuda and his teenage years in New York, returning to his country of birth after he received his draft notice for the Vietnam War. By the time he arrived back in Toronto he had already performed in bands, playing clubs and halls across the eastern US including the iconic Apollo Theatre in Harlem. He continued performing in bands in Toronto, playing clubs like the Horseshoe. After Hair closed, he and other tribe members formed the group Hairafter and performed for over a year at a club inside the Walker House Hotel. Hairafter was so popular people lined up around the building to get in to see the group. St. John also wrote and recorded many songs. He performed for Nelson Mandela and the Dalai Lama when they visited Toronto. He has mentored many young people and organized youth choirs. His high standing in the music community and his strong vocal ability earned him an invitation to join such luminaries as Anne Murray, Gordon Lightfoot, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Salome Bey, Bryan Adams and many others on the single of “Tears are Not Enough,” which raised funds for Ethiopian famine relief in 1985. St. John has also had a brilliant career as a writer and vocalist of advertising jingles, recording more than a thousand of them and winning the advertising industry Clio award. He has also been nominated for two Junos and was inducted into the Canadian Black Music Hall of Fame. His daughter, Michelle St. John, is a Gemini Award-winning actor, writer, director and producer.
Wayne St. John with his daughter Michelle St. John, when she was 2-1/2 years old, and his wife Rochelle backstage at the Royal Alex during the run of Hair in 1970. Photo credit: Frank Lennon, Toronto Star.
Rudy Webb is a stalwart and highly respected member of Canada’s musical theatre community. Since the early 1970s, he has performed in musicals across the country. At the Royal Alex, he was a member of the legendary original cast of Godspell in 1972, which also included Gilda Radner, Victor Garber, Andrea Martin, Martin Short, Eugene Levy and Jayne Eastwood. In 1976 he returned to the Alex in the Charlottetown Festival production of By George, and in 2007 he was in Dirty Dancing. Also for Mirvish, he was in the Canadian premiere production of The Who’s Tommy at the Elgin Theatre. During Toronto’s halcyon days of cabaret and dinner theatre, he was in many productions, from Indigo to Pippin to Sophisticated Ladies. He even founded a late-night tradition for Toronto’s musical theatre actors called Curtains Up, an after-show open mic stage where actors could try out new material for an audience made up of colleagues and theatregoers. In 1984, when the megamusical era came to Toronto, he was an original cast member of Cats. One could argue that Toronto musical theatre would not exist if it wasn’t for Rudy Webb’s talent, loyalty and longevity.
PORGY AND BESS
Porgy and Bess is considered one of the seminal works of musical theatre. When it premiered on Broadway in 1935, it bridged classical opera and popular music. An attempt by George Gershwin (music), DuBose Heyward (libretto and lyrics) and Ira Gershwin (lyrics), to create a genuine American opera, it was originally looked down upon by the operatic community and audience, instead becoming a staple of musical theatre. In 1976, a celebrated Houston Grand Opera production finally established it as a bonafide opera and it has since been produced by classical opera companies around the world. Nevertheless it still remains popular with musical theatre audiences as it introduced many songs that have become standards, including “Summertime,” “I Loves You, Porgy,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So,” and “Bess, You Is My Woman Now.” Although the work was created by an all-white creative team, it tells of a poor Black community in Charleston. The main story concerns Porgy, a disabled street beggar, whose attempt to save Bess from her violent and jealous lover ends tragically. The original production was cast with classically trained Black singers, many of whom influenced the show’s creation and direction by contributing authenticity to the final work. Porgy and Bess played the Royal Alex many times. It had its Canadian premiere in 1943, when the original Broadway tour visited Toronto. It returned twice in 1954, and in 1965 it was produced locally.
The 1943 engagement starred Todd Duncan, who originated the role of Porgy on Broadway and whose career is interwoven with the show. A classically trained singer, he became an opera star who toured internationally. He was the first Black singer to perform with New York City Opera, often playing “white” roles. He was also a renowned teacher of vocal performance at Howard University. When Porgy and Bess began touring, Duncan used the opportunity to challenge racism. He refused to play in theatres where the audience was segregated and always managed to convince the management to change their policies. In Toronto, the problem wasn’t segregation in theatres but in hotels. Fearing they would lose their American customers, all Toronto hotels refused to house the cast of Porgy and Bess. Ernest Rawley, the Royal Alex’s manager, was furious but could do nothing about it. Through Toronto churches, he arranged for the cast members to stay in private homes. But when the cast arrived at Union Station during a downpour and Rawley saw them standing at the platform, soaked and shivering, he dismissed the dozen cabs he had organized to take them to their billets. Instead he led them across the street to the Royal York hotel where he publicly shamed the manager into giving this distinguished group of artists rooms. He succeeded and the company had a glorious engagement in Toronto.
Sterling Jarvis is originally from Digby, NS, but has lived and worked in Toronto for many decades. An actor, singer and songwriter, he started performing from a young age. He played both Simba and Pumba in the Toronto production of The Lion King at the Princess of Wales Theatre. Also for Mirvish, he starred in We Will Rock You for its two-plus-years run at the Ed Mirvish Theatre and in Clybourne Park at the CAA Theatre. He won the Dora Award for Outstanding Performance in a Musical for Caroline, or Change. His other stage credits include Of Mice and Men, The Whipping Man and Ruined. His work in film and TV includes The Sentinel, Perfect Strangers, The Eleventh Hour, The West Wing, Felicity, and ‘Til Death Do Us Part. For his recording work, he has been twice nominated for a Juno Award.
MOTOWN THE MUSICAL
Motown The Musical is the story of record producer Berry Gordy, the history of the record label that launched the careers of some of the greatest Black pop music artists, and the style of music that, from 1960 to 1980, came to define an era. It opened on Broadway in 2013 and played until 2015. The touring production played the Princess of Wales Theatre in September 2015. Like the Broadway production it was a sold-out success and returned for an encore engagement in 2018. The musical was also produced in London and in many other cities around the world.
Salome Bey was known as Canada's "First Lady of the Blues.” Born in New Jersey, she first came to Toronto with her sister and brother as the touring group Andy and the Bey Sisters. She met and fell in love with Toronto restaurateur and entrepreneur Howard Berkeley Matthews, whose Underground Railroad served the city's Black community and became famous for its cuisine. She moved here permanently in 1964 and the two married and raised three children. Bey continued to sing, record, and perform in many influential theatre shows. She won an Obie Award for Love Me, Love My Children off-Broadway. She began in that production when it was originally produced at Global Village in Toronto. She was nominated for a Grammy for the cast recording of Your Arms Too Short to Box with God, in which she starred on Broadway from 1978 to 1980. She won the Dora Award in 1980 for Indigo, a musical review that she created and starred in. It traced the history of Black American music from field hollers and spirituals to Stevie Wonder and Patti Labelle. In 1985 she was one of the stars of the pantomime Mother Goose at the Royal Alex. Among her many other projects was Rainboworld, a musical for young people that helped nurture and launch the career of many Black Canadian artists, such as Deborah Cox and Divine Brown. She often appeared in concerts with her daughters, Jacintha Tuku and singer/songwriter SATE. For her contributions to the arts and to Canadian society, she was awarded the Order of Canada and the Toronto Arts Award. Bey died on August 8, 2020 at the age of 86.
Find out more about the life of Salome Bey on CBC.
THE WIZ: THE SUPER SOUL MUSICAL
The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical is an African-American adaptation of Baum's famous novel that has been the inspiration of so many other works. It opened on Broadway in 1975, becoming one of the first all-Black hit musicals. It paved the way for many all-Black Broadway shows, including Ain’t Misbehavin’, Bubbling Brown Sugar, Dreamgirls and many more. The Wiz had its Canadian premiere at the Royal Alex in January 1978.
With an original score by Charlie Smalls, book by William F. Brown and direction by the Trinidadian-American dancer, actor, director, designer and producer Geoffrey Holder, The Wiz won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical. It was subsequently produced around the world, made into a film starring Diana Ross and Michael Jackson, and, most recently, had a live television production on NBC in 2015. New York Times critic Frank Rich summed up the musical’s enduring strengths: "What made The Wiz surprisingly moving is that its creators found a connection between Baum's Kansas fantasy and the pride of urban Black Americans. When Glinda, the good witch, musically instructed Dorothy to 'believe in herself,' she seemed to be delivering a broader inspirational message. The Wiz had something to say about Black self-respect, and it said it with verve and integrity."
THE COLOR PURPLE
The Color Purple is a musical adaptation of the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Alice Walker, the first Black woman to win the Pulitzer. It tells the story of Celie, an African-American woman in Georgia, from the early to mid-20th century, and follows her journey from virtual slave, and the victim of men, of traditional sexual roles, of racism, and of innumerable social injustices, to her blossoming into a whole human being, someone who has known genuine love and has found self-esteem, purpose and joy. The musical — written by Marsha Norman, with music and lyrics by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis and Stephen Bray — premiered on Broadway in 2005 and ran for three years. A touring production followed and had its Canadian premiere at the Ed Mirvish Theatre in February of 2009.
Jully Black was named as one of "The 25 Greatest Canadian Singers Ever" by CBC and is also known as "Canada’s Queen of R&B Soul" by fans and peers. She is a platinum-selling recording artist, with multiple singles reaching the top 10 in the pop, R&B, and dance music charts, and the winner of many Juno Awards. As a songwriter, she has collaborated with other artists, including Sean Paul and Destiny’s Child. She has shared the concert stage with superstars such as The Black Eyed Peas, Kanye West, Celine Dion, Elton John and Etta James to name a few. She made her theatrical debut in ‘da Kink in My Hair at the Princess of Wales Theatre in 2005, and most recently played the title role in The Musical Stage Company’s production of Caroline, or Change for which she won the 2020 Dora Award for Outstanding Performance in a Leading Role. Jully is a major presence in the Canadian media and entertainment industry. As former host and correspondent for CTV’s etalk, Jully was chosen to interview global megastars such as Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey and former president Bill Clinton.
Philip Akin is an actor, director and producer. Born in Kingston, Jamaica, he moved to Oshawa with his family when he was four. He was the first graduate of the Ryerson Theatre School acting programme and got his first professional job immediately afterwards. He has acted in leading roles in major films, TV series and on stage. He starred in the title role of Othello at the Stratford Festival as well as in other major roles in theatres across Canada. He was one of the founders of Obsidian Theatre and became the company’s second artistic director, from 2006 to 2020. He won the Outstanding Direction Dora Award twice, both times in Obsidian productions: Topdog/Underdog (2012) and "Master Harold" ...and the Boys (2017). For The Musical Stage Company and Mirvish Productions, he directed Next To Normal in 2019, presented in the Off-Mirvish series.
Clybourne Park is a 2010 play by Bruce Norris that uses the action in A Raisin in the Sun as inspiration to examine race relations, property ownership and aspirations for a better life 50 years after the original story was set. It premiered off-Broadway in 2010 at Playwrights Horizons. The play had its Canadian premiere in 2012 at Berkeley Street Theatre, produced by Studio 180 Theatre and directed by Joel Greenberg. That production transferred to the Panasonic Theatre (now the CAA) in 2013, part of the inaugural Off-Mirvish season. Clybourne Park was awarded the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and the 2012 Tony Award for Best Play. In 2013, yet another play inspired by A Raisin in the Sun was written. Entitled Beneatha's Place, this play by Kwame Kwei-Armah follows the title character as she leaves the USA for Nigeria. This trilogy of plays by three different playwrights was produced by Baltimore's Center Stage in 2013 under the banner of "The Raisin Cycle."
A RAISIN IN THE SUN
A Raisin in the Sun (1959) by Lorraine Hansberry is considered one of the landmark cultural works of the 20th century. It was the first play by a Black playwright to be performed on Broadway and was instrumental in launching a renaissance of Black culture. Its influence was felt around the world, and it is still regularly produced in theatres everywhere. The play had its Canadian premiere at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in 1960. Tragically, Hansberry, who was only 29 when her play was first produced, died of pancreatic cancer only five years later. She left several unfinished plays, one of which, Les Blancs, was edited and completed by her ex-husband, and premiered on Broadway in 1970. A revised version was produced by the National Theatre in London in 2016.
'DA KINK IN MY HAIR
‘da Kink in My Hair is an immensely popular play by trey anthony that explores the lives of a group of Caribbean Canadian women — their joys, their hardships, their relationship with each other, their families, and with the society they find themselves in. The play was first performed at the Toronto Fringe Festival in 2001. It was then revised and played at Theatre Passe Muraille in 2003. A further revision opened in 2005 at the 2,000-seat Princess of Wales Theatre, where, due to popular demand, its run was extended again and again, running 11 sold-out weeks. It was the first Canadian play to be produced at the Princess of Wales and, at the time, the longest-running non-musical play in the venue’s history. The production starred many young actors who have gone on to great careers, including Jully Black, who had her theatrical debut in it; D’bi.young anitafrika, who has gone on to write, direct and produce theatre; Ngozi Paul, who has performed at Stratford and in major films and TV series; and Weyni Mengesha, who had her directorial debut with this show. It was subsequently produced at San Diego Repertory Theatre and at the historical and legendary Hackney Empire in London. A TV series was adapted from the play that ran on the Global network from 2007 to 2009.
@dakinkinmyhair @blackgirlinlove @toronto_fringe
LES BALLETS AFRICAINS
Les Ballets Africains, which was founded by Guinean poet, dancer and choreographer Fodéba Keïta in 1948, is a troupe that uses the drumming, dancing and traditional storytelling of African culture. It has toured the world since 1951, including a run on Broadway in 1959, and played at the Royal Alex in 1965.
After Guinea obtained its independence from France in 1958, then President of Guinea Ahmed Sékou Touré made the ballet the country’s national ensemble. Because traditionally, Guinean men and women dance bare-chested, the company sometimes found laws in some countries restrictive. For instance, in 1959 while performing in Montreal, the troupe was charged with giving indecent performances. The judge dismissed the charge.
AIN'T TOO PROUD: THE LIFE AND TIMES OF THE TEMPTATIONS
Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations played a sold-out run at the Princess of Wales Theatre October and November 2018 before transferring to Broadway in 2019. Written by Dominique Morisseau, directed by Des McAnuff and choreographed by Sergio Trujillo (2019 Tony Award for Best Choreography), the musical tells the sometimes tumultuous story of how a group of young men became one of the biggest musical acts in history, while at the same time exploring the personal and political conflicts that threatened to tear them apart as the United States fell into civil unrest.
Alana Bridgewater is an actor and singer. For more than two years she starred as Killer Queen in We Will Rock You at the Ed Mirvish Theatre. Other recent credits include the title role in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom (Soulpepper). She is an resident artist with Necessary Angel Theatre Company for which she made the short film The Twisted Road.
Weyni Mengesha, one of the preeminent theatre directors in Canada, is current artistic director at Soulpepper. She got her start as the assistant director on The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God and as the director of ‘da Kink in my Hair, both for Mirvish. She also directed the Why Not Theatre production of Butcher, presented by Off-Mirvish. She has worked across Canada, in New York and London.
@weynimengesha @soulpeppertheatre @whynottheatreto
FOR COLORED GIRLS WHO HAVE CONSIDERED SUICIDE WHEN THE RAINBOW IS ENUF
For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf by Ntozake Shange tells the stories of seven women who have suffered oppression in a racist and sexist society. A unique blend of poetry, music, dance and drama called a “choreopoem,” it “took the theatre world by storm,” noted Jacqueline Trescott in the Washington Post. A hit on Broadway, it played at the Royal Alex in March 1978.
Sarafina! is a South African musical by Mbongeni Ngema depicting the student uprising against apartheid in Soweto told from the point of view of an ambitious school girl actress-activist named Sarafina. It had its Canadian premiere at the Royal Alex in September 1990.
The creation of the musical was chronicled in the documentary film, Voices of Sarafina! A film adaptation was made in 1992 starring Whoopi Goldberg and Leleti Khumalo.
Paul Robeson, the brilliant actor, singer, producer and activist, performed the title role in Othello at the Royal Alex in September 1944. He was the first Black artist to play the role with a white supporting cast on Broadway and then toured North America with it.
Although, he would play Toronto other times, mostly in concert, this was the only time he appeared in a play here. It was a magnificent time in the history of the Royal Alex.