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Black Theatre Canada and Native Earth Performing Arts: A Slideshow
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In preparing issue 156 of CTR, the co-editors recognized the unfortunate absence of evidence (at least within submissions) of work on intercultural theatre archives. In order to rectify this gap and to demonstrate—even argue for increased emphasis on—the long-term preservation of these dynamic and significant contributions to the Canadian theatrical record, Jenn Stephenson and I decided to create a slideshow featuring two intercultural theatre archives that are available for research in the University of Guelph’s Archival and Special Collections. The slideshow offers a quick look at the collections of two intercultural theatre companies that have had an important impact on the development of Canadian theatre: Black Theatre Canada (1973-1988) and Native Earth Performing Arts (1982-present). The wealth of creative power that Black Theatre Canada once brought and Native Earth Performing Arts continues to bring to Canadian theatre is amply evident in the images to follow.

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In 1973, Vera Cudjoe founded Black Theatre Canada (BTC) in downtown Toronto to address the representation of Black artists in Canadian theatre. Originally from Trinidad, Cudjoe proposed a cross-cultural approach to constructing national theatrical identity by merging West Indian theatre with its Canadian counterpart. As one of Canada’s first Black, professional theatre companies, BTC became a cultural pioneer in promoting expression and awareness of the under-represented Black community; while not intending exclusivity, the theatre company encouraged productions with “black actors performing black works from a black perspective (sic)” (What’s in a Name?). Through the development and implementation of numerous programs, workshops, and public school curricula, BTC became a significant resource organization for developing cross-cultural understanding. Despite Black Theatre Canada’s fifteen years of warm community response and critical success, the company was perpetually plagued by a lack of access to theatre spaces and an inability to secure adequate funding, forcing its permanent suspension in 1988.

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The birth of Black Theatre Canada in the 1970s was largely supported by the Caribbean diaspora in Canada, and launched the careers of many Black actors, writers, directors, and producers of West Indian descent. BTC embraced Toronto’s emerging multicultural population by sponsoring such events as the “Fiesta Caribay,” a festival celebrating the Caribbean’s performing arts and culture, at Harbourfront (“Fiesta” 1). This poster from its 1977 production Caribbean Pepperpot reflects BTC’s engagement with the Caribbean diasporic community.

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In 1979, Vera Cudjoe took a one-year sabbatical, leaving Amah Harris as acting artistic and executive director for the aptly named “Calabash Season”: a metaphorical reference to the company’s burgeoning status as an impending force of nature (Breon). Harris invited Caribbean actors Louise Bennett, a Jamaican folklorist, and Trinidadian comedian Paul Keens Douglas to perform in the critically acclaimed production of Miss Lou Meets Mr. Tim Tim.

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Just as the name “Roscius” alludes to the historically significant slave who rose to become a great actor in ancient Rome, Robin Breon’s play The African Roscius chronicles the life and career of Ira Frederick Aldridge, a prominent Black actor who broke through the barriers of England’s predominantly White theatre world (Program). As evident in its billing as “A New Canadian Play” on the poster, the production of The African Roscius in 1987 illustrates Black Theatre Canada’s mandate to support the development of new Canadian artistic talent.

Works Cited

Breon, Robin. “The Growth and Development of Black Theatre in Canada: A Starting Point.” Theatre Research in Canada/Histoire du Theatre au Canada 9.2 (1988): 216–228. Print.
———. The African Roscius. Toronto: Native Earth Performing Arts, 1987. Print.
“Fiesta Caribay.” Harbourfront News 3.20 (7 Nov. 1977): 1-2. Print.
Program notes. The African Roscius by Robin Breon. Alumnae Theatre. Toronto, ON. 1987: insert. Print.
“What’s in a Name?” Fact Sheet. Black Theatre Canada. Toronto, ON. n.d. Print.

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Founded in Toronto by Denis Lacroix and Bunny Sicard in 1982, Native Earth Performing Arts (NEPA) is recognized as the oldest professional Aboriginal theatre company in Canada. In addition to more than 50 productions in the past three decades, it established the annual Weesageechak Festival in...

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