Black Theatre Workshop is celebrating its 40th year as the heart of the black Canadian community. From humble beginnings to renowned work and success, its cast and crew remain as humble and determined as when they started out.
The company was created one night in the “70s, when a few Caribbean immigrant students, including founding father Clarence Bayne, gathered in the basement of a fellow student’s apartment to discuss the radical black politics of the United States. Bayne explained, “Some of us came together and said that if I’m going to live in this country, then it’s going to reflect me and I’m not just going to do and say as the Romans do.” That meeting would lead to a decision that would impact Canadian culture. That night, over a few beers and to the sounds of jazz, BTW was conceived.
Since that night, BTW has been the voice of that community. Until the end of the 1990s, they produced plays that were a reproduction of a form of Caribbean expression called the Carnival Arts. Calypso in the Flesh, one of their most significant productions of the “70s, included stringing up a number of different types of calypso songs to tell a story, as well as dancing and singing.
By the turn of the century, BTW had become the theatre of a tug-of-war between the black Canadian community and the Caribbean community over which productions were being shown. This resulted in a shift back into the past, with productions such as Afrika Solo and Stockholm(e) being staged.
Bayne said that over the decades, BTW has become a living social and cultural element in the Canadian cultural landscape. As Garvin Jeffers, a founding member of the Quebec Board of Black Educators, put it, BTW is “the soul of the black community.”
When asked what play best represents the beat of BTW, Bayne answered, “Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun. It resonates in the memory of the Black Theatre Workshop and of its founders.” That’s why they chose to re-launch the production on Nov. 24 for the first time in 30 years.
“The story still relates today, but not only for our youth, but for all to remember, that it’s not about being oppressed, but about us being innovative, creative human beings,” Bayne explained. “When there is a mountain in your path, dig a tunnel under it, a road around it or build an object to fly over it.”
Tyrone Benskin, an actor and art director, is one of Concordia’s own. He was first hired by BTW in 1981 and has returned to work for them over the years. He is the art director of A Raisin in the Sun. He agreed with Bayne when he said that the story still relates to this day.
“After 50 years it still remains a historical play in its right. It was the first time an African-American artist produced and directed on Broadway, changing the established view of the big-eyed, smiling and tap dancing characters.” He called A Raisin in the Sun the first “African-American, everyone play.” The play revolves around the story of the black Younger family as their ambitions intertwine and clash in the South Side of Chicago.
Benskin is optimistic about the troupe’s future. “Though the company has faced darker days over the years, Clarence Bayne has kept BTW alive,” he said, adding that “a home for BTW would be nice [since] we’re currently nomadic.” Bayne said they have a youth program that offers kids something they can understand about black culture, a sort of reshaping of society and to keep the culture going in future generations.
Benskin suggested that viewers watch A Raisin in the Sun with “fresh eyes,” not to go in with the anniversary or the 1961 movie in mind. He added that the production is “old school”: audiences should expect a three-act play, extending over two-and-a-half hours. As Benskin sums it up: “This is our story, this is who we are. Come and share this with us.”
A Raisin in the Sun plays at the Centaur Theatre from Nov. 24 to Dec. 5. For more information, visit www.blacktheatreworkshop.ca.