The show’s co-creators and members of the cast discuss the process of filming during COVID-19, what they hope viewers will take away from this show, and more
“The Porter,” a new CBC drama set to air on Feb. 21, will focus on the lives of the Black train porters, nurses, entertainers, and other individuals who occupied Montreal’s St. Antoine neighbourhood (now known as Little Burgundy) during the 1920s. These porters would often assist travellers at the train stations, were in charge of loading and unloading luggage, and more. The show will especially zone in on how these Black train porters came to form North America’s largest Black labour union. The Concordian spoke with co-creators Arnold Pinnock (who also plays the character Glenford), Marsha Greene, Annmarie Morais, as well as actress Oluniké Adeliyi, who plays the character Queenie, about this new drama.
TC: Can you begin by walking me through the process of bringing together this incredible show?
AP: So I’m an immigrant, my parents are from Jamaica via England to Canada, and one of the things that I loved to do was just to find out as much information as I could to learn about […] Black Canadians. I was having a hard time in school learning about [them], other than some samples of The Underground Railroad. So any book that I could find I would start reading [to learn] about the Black Canadian experience. One of the common denominators that kept on showing up for me was porters. I found it really interesting because I found out that these men and women were from not only the Southern states, but also from the Caribbean, and that they came to this country and literally had the ability to change policy. It blew my mind that these people were able to form the biggest Black union, not just in Canada, but across North America. That just really empowered me to go down that road and then eventually, I hooked up with my writing partner, Bruce Ramsay, and we went down this rabbit hole together.
One of the things that we encountered was the Negro Community Centre (NCC) in Little Burgundy. It was boarded up and there were murals of Oscar Peterson, Oliver Jones, and Oscar Peterson’s sister. When we learned what the NCC was all about … taking care of the Black community [starting in 1927] and to help against the racism that the community was dealing with, we thought, “Hey, you know what? If we could create a series, maybe we could garnish enough money to help restore this building.” Unfortunately, three years later the building was demolished. Instead of us feeling like the passion behind it was over, it actually empowered us and we went on the journey to get this show done.
TC: What challenges, if any, did you encounter along the way?
MG: During the course of filming there were the challenges of filming during COVID and things like that. We would remind each other about the porters, the communities, and the families, and how they fought through what they were going through. It was the thing that kept us going during those hard times. We knew that this story needed to be told and that really kept us going through all of the hard times over the years it took to bring it to life.
OA: I think, for me, the biggest challenge was making my character Queenie as human as possible so that she wasn’t this one-dimensional, gangster character, and that there was a purpose for her being who she is. It was an enjoyable experience no matter what happened. I would say my other biggest challenge was learning to play piano. It was wonderful to be able to challenge myself to learn the songs that I had to play. It was beautiful. When I started to get things, I was like, “There’s nothing I can’t do now.” There are beautiful challenges, and then there are terrible challenges. This was definitely a beautiful challenge.
TC: Club Stardust occupies an important space in this narrative. Can you briefly walk me through how this environment was brought to life, and could you also elaborate a bit on the role that music and dance play in the show?
MG: I think music and dance are so much a part of how we connect to each other and what brings us together. I think we all felt, in the Black community, there was a sound and a rhythm that kind of felt like ours and what we wanted to explore. When we got to the post-production and editing, we started to just bring in more music. Sometimes it was contemporary […] and then we also kind of wanted to have Afro sounds and Caribbean sounds, just to kind of bring it all together. We actually filmed the Stardust stuff at the end of the shoot. We did that just in terms of the location, but it actually was this amazing burst of energy at the end of this very long, challenging shoot. To be in Stardust with all these people and to watch those dance numbers and hear the music was just incredible.
AM: We were inspired by a club that was rooted in Montreal that was called Rockhead’s Paradise. I think there was a lot of spirit in that establishment in Montreal that we wanted to harness and create in our own way. I think that was really part of the magic of Stardust and this series.
TC: What are you ultimately hoping that viewers take away from this show?
MG: One of our great hopes, in terms of the history, is that it would inspire people to look things up. To watch an episode and to be like “Did that happen, was it really like that?”
I hope that the audience also takes away that no two Black people are anomalous. We are multidimensional people and we all have similar yet different lives. It’s wonderful to be able to watch because it’s relatable to any other race or culture. We have regular lives, we have families. Not every story for us is a struggle story. I’m so happy that “The Porter” displays that because it brings meaning to our lives. It allows you to see the value of us. Most of the time you can only see the value of something when it’s in you, so yes, we represent the Black community, but we also represent so many communities that have the same experience family-wise and love-wise. I think that’s what we’re promoting more than anything: to just see us.
For more information on “The Porter,” please visit CBC’s website.
Visual courtesy of CBC