Collective unearths historic heroes

Black Canadian Theatre Series will tell significant stories

Ellipsis Tree Collective is launching a Black Canadian Theatre Series that will be the first of its kind in Western Canada.

Founded in 2009 the collective is a local Afrocentric theatre company dedicated to providing opportunities for “Calgary’s under-served talent.” Artistic director Janelle Cooper says the series has been in the works since last summer after she and artistic producer Cheryl Foggo a local author and historian came up with the idea. The series consists of three plays which will run between March and August: The Real McCoy John Ware Reimagined and The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God .

Cooper says this series as a whole “gives us a chance to start a long-awaited conversation about our heritage.” In fact she recalls sitting down with the production team and asking the question “What do we know about black Canadian history?”

“Most of us didn’t know much” admits Cooper.

“I heard all about African-American leaders in school but to know there are all of these figures in our own backyard these heroes waiting to be unearthed and discussed I find that very exciting.”

The three plays all have a history with Ellipsis in the form of workshops and readings and Cooper says their themes are all “significant to black Canadian culture and heritage.”

The first play in the lineup Andrew Moodie’s The Real McCoy tells the story of Elijah McCoy the Canadian-born engineer and inventor of a number of devices that assisted in the lubrication of steam engines. In fact McCoy received more than 50 patents during his lifetime and is the source of the expression “the real McCoy.”

However McCoy who was born in 1843 lived during a time when the colour of his skin prevented him from ever receiving the recognition he deserved.

Cooper says that like many notable black people it’s difficult to find much information about McCoy in the historical record. “There’s so little available about him and his life. Who was this man?” she asks.

Moodie tries to address that question as much as possible in The Real McCoy providing glimpses of McCoy as “the man the husband and the friend.”

The Black Canadian Theatre Series continues in June with Foggo’s John Ware Reimagined about the legendary black cowboy who arrived in Alberta in 1882.

“Ware is a larger-than-life Paul Bunyan-esque figure in history but Foggo has done some very deep exploration into his life particularly into his life as a friend neighbour and family man. We get to see John Ware as just that” says Cooper.

“Strip away the buckles and the struts and you’re left with this man whose dedication to his family and his community was his prime objective.”

Foggo juxtaposes Ware’s life with that of a young African-Canadian girl who is growing up in a “cowboy-obsessed city” a century later.

The series concludes in August with Djanet Sears’ The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God . Cooper says the play follows the story of a woman Rainey Johnson who loses her child and along with that terrible loss her marriage. She ends up withdrawing from her family and her community of Negro Creek a community in Ontario the Canadian government deeded to the black population more than 200 years ago. Eventually Johnson returns to Negro Creek and has to confront her past.

“We realize it’s a part of her that she would always have a connection to this place. It’s beautiful it’s hilarious it’s heart-wrenching and it deals with loss on a number of levels” says Cooper.

In conjunction with The Adventures of A Black Girl in Search of God Cooper says the collective is spearheading an Adventures Mentorship Program (AMP) that will provide opportunities for low-income youth from visible minorities to work for a five-week period on a professional show.

“When I was coming up as a young artist I didn’t have any reflections in my community. There were no young black female artists doing what I wanted to do so I’m very excited to give these youth an opportunity” she says.