(Artistic Directors from left to right: Don Jordan, Tyrone Benskin, Quincy Armorer, Winston Sutton, Terry Donald, Clarence Bayne)
Black Theatre Workshop celebrates 45 years of creating great theatre by bringing the show The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God to the National Arts Centre in Ottawa.
With a culturally diverse cast of 22 people, the play is emblematic of the need for a vision of Canadian theatre that prioritizes inclusivity. Black Theatre Workshop’s partnership with Centaur Theatre and The National Arts Centre represents a Canada-wide commitment to theatre that speaks to a plurality of Canadian narratives.
Lucinda Davis, an award-winning Montreal actress with a spine-tingling sincerity, mentions the impact of The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God in saying that, “This is a Canadian story. It is a Black Canadian story.”
The spirit of solidarity behind Black Theatre Workshop was felt at the company’s 45th Birthday Celebration at Centaur Theatre which was attended by past Artistic Directors of the company, including Don Jordan, Tyrone Benskin, Quincy Armorer (current Artistic Director), Winston Sutton, Terry Donald and Clarence Bayne, among others who have moulded the company into what it has become.
The evening was enlivened by the special appearance of long time BTW supporter and friend Caroline Walwyn who flew in from Australia.
Caroline  acted in several Black Theatre Workshop productions and was instrumental in the company’s growth through her contributions in marketing, publicity, administration, fundraising and more. Caroline’s presence at Black Theatre Workshop’s 45th birthday contributed to the sense of camaraderie and enthusiasm that made the night an unforgettable one.
(from left to right: Past Board Member Elsa Bolam, Past Artistic Director and BTW Actor Winston Sutton, Past Actress and Marketing and Publicity Director, Caroline Walwyn)
As the cast from Adventures voices soared over the hum of great conversation, the crowd at the 45th Birthday Party was reminded of how far the company has come.
Black Theatre Workshop’s collaboration on The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God speaks to the organization’s revolutionary mandate which was initially envisioned in a basement apartment near McGill University in 1964. The urgency of the company’s commitment to promoting visibility and opportunities for the work of Black Canadian artists remains integral.
Featuring Walter Borden in God’s Trombones
Founding member Clarence Bayne recalls those initial basement meetings. “We were drinking beers, listening to Charles Mingus, John Coltrane and Miles Davis, occasionally looking at the traffic of feet passing by the window that was just above the level of the pavement. The conversation slipped into a debate about the pros and cons of revolution as a means of change.”
A line from Adventures that penetrates the walls of the theatre house is, “To tolerate and to accept are two completely different things.” The line is spoken by Judge Abendigo Johnson who is played by the venerable Canadian treasure, Walter Borden.
Adventures addresses revolution and how it manifests in a small, community–oriented and historically rich Canadian town. The play interrogates the omission of Black history from Canadian narratives while exploring the harmful consequences of cultural appropriation, overt discrimination and white supremacy disguised as political correctness. In the play, a group of activists in their 70s create the LOTSA SOAP Gang which stands for the “Liberation of
Thoroughly Seditious Artifacts Symbolizing the Oppression of African People.” The group seeks to reclaim racist items or imagery that dehumanize Black people. The dialogue over race and cultural preservation incited by Adventures echoes the basement conversations that stoked the fire for Black Theatre Workshop’s mandate.
Bayne recalls that at the time, “No one in Arthur’s basement was over 33, and as the empties piled up, the crescendo of the voices gave way to the exhortations of James Brown “Say it loud, I’m Black and proud.”
The group of students from Nigeria, Kenya and the Caribbean discussed cultural appropriation, colonialism, cultural value and the move towards self-preservation, equality and representation. United in solidarity, they came to the conclusion that it was time to “take charge of how we are seen, understood and defined.” Out of this need to exploit “narrow nationalism,” The Trinidad and Tobago Association was born. Since then, the organization has evolved to become Black Theatre Workshop, a nationally-recognized cultural institution and a hub and home for cultural diversity in Montreal.
“Dreams are dreams,” Bayne says. “But it takes a lot of hard work, persistence and goodwill to turn dreams into realities. Whatever success we can claim belongs to all the people who have worked with us (1).”
With The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God bursting onto the national stage, Black Theatre Workshop reflects on their beginnings while looking forward to another decade of celebrating Black Canadian theatre, Black Canadian stories.
1.    In reflecting on 45 years of history, Black Theatre Workshop would like to thank the entire cast and crew of How Now Black Man, Arthur Goddard, Anne Cools, Dr. Keith Richardson, Frank Sealey, Clarence Bayne, McGill University, Frances Bayne, Derek Walcott, The Centaur Theatre, The Westmount auditorium, The Revue Theatre of Arleigh Peterson, Elsa Bolam, Maurice Podbrey, Black Studies Centre, Dawson Professional Theatre School, Concordia University, The National Theatre School for their invaluable contributions.
Black Theatre Workshop would also like to thank the staff, past and current, of BTW as well as all those, cast and crew, who have contributed to the company’s productions. Black Theatre Workshop would also like to thank all those who have volunteered over the years and the individuals who have rigorously supported BTW’s shows and events. Black Theatre Workshop would not be here if it were not for their cherished BTW Community. Thank you.