Five years ago on a Monday afternoon Mike Payette asked me what has since proven to be the most significant question of my career: Who are you, and what do you do? On the surface there isn’t much to it, questions like these are often the standard opener for engaging in small talk with any stranger in North America. But this wasn’t a stranger asking me, it was a friend and artist who I admire deeply and who also has an uncanny way of always being there whenever a major artistic door opens in my life–thank heavens. On the other hand, is any conversation about theatre in Montreal complete without reference to the “Mayor of Theatretown?” I think not. There are just certain artists you interact with who affect you much like iron sharpening iron, whose strength as an artist comes from the kind of self-awareness and questioning that inspires their collaborators to do the same. Certainly it’s a question that I’ve either asked, been asked, or have answered more times than I can count. Yet the answer has the potential to encompass so much: one’s identity, career, passion, lineage, community, values, and more. And so on that particular autumn, as a part of the first year of the AMP program at Black Theatre Workshop maybe for the first time in my professional career I really began to consider the import of what that could mean for me.
I’ve seldom been able to answer to the question of who I am without speaking to where I come from and what has made me. Whenever I tell people that I was born in Canada, I generally have to explain further why because of the way I look. Brown skin and curly hair aren’t traits that are typically associated with your everyday Canadian. When I choose to answer the question in detail, I explain that one of my parents was born here and the other was born in the West Indies. My ethnic heritage is West African, Indigenous, Asian and Caucasian: I’m of Mohawk, Malaysian, German, Chinese, Irish, Scottish, Italian, French, Trinidadian, and Venezuelan descent. Although I identify primarily as a queer Black woman, the fact is that the bulk of my history and cultural heritage has been lost to me through the legacy of this country’s involvement with transatlantic slave trade as well as because of past and ongoing colonial policies of Indigenous genocide in this land since First Contact. I am the kind of Canadian whose story is only beginning to emerge on stages and screens for the general public: the seventh generation of my family “name,” both a descendant of the First People rooted very much in the soil of this land while equally being a child of the world. Chief Joseph Brant is my forefather, and so I feel fortunate knowing that my family is native to this land while also being the child of an immigrant. I believe that my identity and experience gives me a uniquely inclusive perspective as a storyteller that I too can add to the chorus of incredible artists of colour in this country.
I’ve come to realize that in everything that I do I’m always a storyteller: whether as an actor, singer, educator, or poet, and more recently as a director and playwright. I particularly love the Jamaican expression I an’ I. It means so many different things to me at once: you and I, I am you, and you are me. It also sounds like Eye in Eye, which speaks to me of perception and observation. I am the Other, and yet this Other is alien. Exploring the paradox of how a multitude of experience and understanding can exist within one person is endlessly fascinating to me and is what most fuels my quest to further understand, relate, and connect to the world. Ancestrally speaking, the Yoruba worldview of sacred polarity, one that embraces a both/and approach as opposed to an either/or way of thinking is what most frames much of my point of view and the way in which I seek to live, think, and work.
In the same way that I continue to learn how to reconcile and balance the many ingredients that flavour my worldview, through the arts I seek to bring people to a common ground of exchange through the sharing of culture. I believe in the urgency of injecting into the art that we produce the objective that with our storytelling and creative process we continually seek for bridges to reconcile the world to one another. I suppose if the playground scuffles of my childhood are any indication, I’ve never been unconcerned with justice, equity, and the importance of the witness or unwilling to fight for what I believe is fair, regardless of the outcome. But as an adult I’ve since channeled that drive and now I believe that the best contribution to my community I can make is as an artist, educator, writer, intellectual, and social advocate.
To me there is nothing more universally human than stories and personal narratives in their many and varied forms. They help to mirror and contextualize the human condition for us, and also have the potential to be the shortest distance between two people–indeed, it’s difficult to hate and fear someone once you know and can relate to their story. It has been said that the more specific a story is the more universal it is as well, often the most intimate and personal things that shape us also unites us all in the commonality of human experience. Micheline Chevrier recently spoke about the fact that the objective of entertainment isn’t only to divert, but also to invite the audience to entertain new ideas and perspectives. As artists when we present to audiences the many sides of a story that can coexist and offer a plurality of perspectives, we can advocate for greater understanding of the Other based on personal observation rather than assumption. It’s exciting to seek out the windows that will help the audience to encounter something alien but then discover in themselves something that makes the alien familiar to them in the hope they may later learn to walk with the Other and come to a greater knowledge and acceptance of themselves. My hope is to contribute to a more empathic and just society by promoting the exchange and celebration of difference and diversity without fear; to make room for every person to walk their own path and to be who they are with freedom and respect.
Although there is no such thing as a homogenous Canadian experience or identity, in terms of mainstream culture only a very narrow slice of the full spectrum of that experience tends to be disseminated, often one that reinforces the image and primacy of settler or colonial identity. And considering our current global political climate and the rise of increasingly divisive racist rhetoric in public life and discourse, it seems that the push for representational diversity in arts and culture is insufficient. The value of diversity–a word I’ve come to loathe when used as a euphemism for BIPOC people–is not only about fair play, it’s also a tacit declaration of values for our industry, culture, and society, about what kind of reality we want to project onto ourselves. With all due deference to Nina Simone, it is the duty of the artist to not only reflect the times in which they live, but also to respond to them.
It is not solely through a unidirectional assimilation of all citizens into settler culture and its existing cultural and training institutions that will help to contribute to harmonious intercultural exchange in society, but to concurrently counter the effects of historic and systemic exclusion and erasure by creating more dedicated space for racialized artists to develop and explore practice together as well. In terms of feminist spaces, the importance of having a space to get together and be empowered to function without men and male-identifying people is perfectly understandable. Such instances have less to do with exclusion than with facilitating areas of exchange in which to practice, develop, and unlearn patriarchal behaviours and conditioning together. The same principle tends to apply for marginalized folks existing outside the many different intersections of privilege in our society, whether that be culture, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, living with disabilities, and so much more.
Recently while on contract for a local theatre company, I did a survey of all PACT and affiliate companies for the coming season across the country that had programming featuring Black artists either onstage or on the creative team. I see that there has been measurable growth and progress with representation of racialized artists in theatre in the years since I first began acting in the 90s, which is heartening. But there is no denying how much more work still remains for this industry to do to move beyond tokenism towards true representation, let alone the possibility for exchange. The disparities and limitations of diversity in representation on Quebec stages and screens is even more marked; whereas about 18% of Quebec residents are racialized–as are approximately 43% of Montreal residents–the corresponding 3-5% representation of artists onscreen and onstage who are not white shows that this reality is neither by accident nor oversight. And I’m only speaking to issues of visibility: the question of the nature and quality of that visibility as well as who is empowered with access and the resources to produce, direct, write, and design is another thing altogether.
I’ve been a theatre artist for nearly two thirds of my life, twenty-five of which were spent in Montreal and I’m painfully aware that although my level of exposure, mobility, access as an artist in this field has only very recently begun to grow, I still have much more to learn and discover. When I think of how many prominent theatre directors I know of who are also women of colour in Quebec, I can count their number on one hand. (In truth, I know that the answer is zero. Why should this be the case, and what accounts for the under-representation of voices like mine in the Canadian theatre landscape? Over the years that have passed since my artistic residency in directing at Black Theatre Workshop, I’ve come to discover exactly why so few womyn do this work in Quebec. Indeed, recent response to some controversial programming in Quebec theatre this past year has led to some important public conversations about cultural appropriation and the under-representation as well as marginalization of racialized artists in Canada.
But a push for inclusion and consultation of artists of colour in any meaningful capacity beyond participation and endorsement only reveals one side of the question. In any of my private conversations with many of the Black and racialized artists who have either participated in industry consultations organized to address these issues, as well as those who choose not to, one heartrending refrain resounded. Without exception every artist I spoke to insisted on anonymity when revealing their fear of engaging in critique or challenge to the issues of racist and problematic representation and practices in the industry lest they face hostility or being blacklisted. Though at times I feel marginalized and isolated in my industry, I also believe that my experience is even more acute for my francophone colleagues of colour, which has only reinforced my resolve to remain a Quebec-based artist so that I can do my part in contributing to change.
My journey from actor to director and now playwright is my response to the lack of diversity and representation in Canadian arts and culture that I experience. The range of stories that I am usually invited to tell as an actor continues to be limited. But whenever I have had the extraordinary opportunity to break out of that mold, it has always been because a director has had the vision to imagine the possibility that my multiracial queer body could indeed inhabit that role. So rather than rail at the status quo, I parlayed my experience as an actor and as an educator into opportunities to explore and develop my craft as a director through its practice. There remains much more to learn and explore, which I hope to do while “holding open the door behind me” in the same way that others have and continue to do for me. It’s the principle that informs what has become my modus operandi as a director, particularly in recent years. In the simplest of terms my mandate as a director is to shine a light on the overlooked and to pass the mic to those that have been silenced. Practically speaking this MO determines both the choice of stories that I tell, as well as the artists that I choose to prioritize in the composition of my collaborative teams: primarily those who are BIPOC, queer, feminine or non-binary, and living with disabilities.
And so ever since that day I first considered the sum of my past and present, my purpose has finally come into view: to contribute to shifting the landscape of an industry that historically has not made an equitable space for marginalized voices and to do my part to open up more room for those voices, those stories, and those bodies to occupy space in the Canadian imaginary.
All images include, Tamara Brown sitting in Centaur Theatre Company who this year are celebrating their 50th anniversary!
Photos by: Mathieu Samson