Maybe it was an event where you kicked off your heels and unapologetically danced the night away with sweat beads rolling ever so slowly from your hairline. Or a moment where you were cognizant of the levels of unbridled joy and all-around good vibes you were surrounded by and privy to.
I recently experienced the latter while in Stratford, Ontario, attending the Stratford Festival for a momentous event. Remember, I attended the festival for the first time last year, and it was a whirlwind of media that led to an exhausting, yet spectacular time. As a lover of the arts, the experience was cemented in my mind, and I already knew that I would be returning to the town for an annual theatre fix. I’m now on season two, but this run began with a special trip.
In conjunction with Stratford Festival, ByBlacks celebrated Black women creatives at a curated event (humbly curated by me!) called Black Women In Media. To genuinely put words to the energy and ambiance of the day is utterly maddening. Knowing there are many Black women in creative fields who deserve all the accolades, it would be challenging to send invites to everyone. But the group gathered for the festivities was nothing short of perfection. All day long, from beginning to end, the vibrations were palpable.
In attendance, we had: award-winning screenwriter, producer and director Jennifer Holness (Subjects Of Desire, BLK An Origin Story), journalist, soon-to-be author and media personality Bee Quammie, award-winning executive producer of the Fifth Estate Allya Davidson, CEO of KPDM Consulting Group and neuro-coach Karlyn Percil-Mercieca, deputy director, global of Refinery29, award-winning journalist and television producer Kathleen Newman-Bremang, CBC assignment producer Kat McMorrow, our revered editor-in-chief, Camille Dundas and myself.
Upon our arrival in style via black SUV limo, we were ushered into the beautiful Tom Patterson Theatre’s Spriet Lounge, where we gathered for a luncheon with women festival artists in leading and stand-out roles this season. Black excellence permeated throughout the room. We were surrounded by pure unadulterated ‘big energy.’ Some of the notable talents in the crowd included: Beck Lloyd (A Wrinkle In Time), Masini McDermott (Rent), Carnival Queen Joella Crichton (Wedding Band), Allison Edwards Crewe (Much Ado About Nothing), the amazing Amaka Umeh (Love’s Labour’s Lost) and director of Wedding Band, Sam White. We were also joined by Nadine Spencer, President of the Black Business and Professional Association (BBPA) and award-winning storyteller Sandra Whiting.
The actors were elated that an event of this nature was available for them. We shared the common ground of Black brilliance and joy. Smiles were gleaming, and handshakes and hugs were warm. It was like reuniting with old friends for a bite. That same night was the opening soirée for Wedding Band, a play by Alice Childress that delves into various topics. Not only is it clearly about interracial relationships in the early 1900s, but it also covers Black women’s friendships, racism, Black men serving in the military at the time, segregation, single motherhood and loneliness.
We were blessed with parting words from Wedding Band director, Sam White about her experience directing the play. She touched upon so many facets. It was a joy to hear her perspective on the creation of this performance, as she held everyone’s attention. She felt Childress’s presence, which was especially needed after the passing of her own mother a mere three months pre-production. “When I first took on the play, I didn’t really think that I could do it,” says White. “This is a show about Black women. Really resilient, incredible, wonderful Black women who are by no means victims. Three months before this process, I lost the strongest Black woman in my life, my mother. So I wondered, how can I hold space for people when the one person who holds space for me is not here?”
Nonetheless, she found strength through Childress’s work. White moved forward with an exemplary outlook and pushed the actors to create amid the uncomfortableness. And what a work of art it came to be. White stated passionately, “It’s not about me, it’s not even about just the actors on stage. This is for Sojourner Truth. This is for Harriet Tubman. This is for Alice Childress. This is for Trayvon Martin. This is for all those people who couldn’t stand in the middle of a stage and say, ‘You can’t talk to me like that. I demand that you talk to me like a human being.’”
Celebrating our own on the grounds of the largest North American theatre festival is significant. A gathering of this magnitude doesn’t only reflect the direction of the Stratford Festival and its implementation of advancing the practice of inclusion in their workforce. But it also depicts and voices what’s been in our collective consciousness for a time. We are beautiful souls. We are resilient. We are survivors and trailblazers. You can’t silence us, we are here.
After soaking in the luncheon ambiance, we headed to the Festival Theatre to watch the musical Rent. While a couple of us were already ‘Rentheads,’ the rest of us were seeing it on our first outing. One of the leads, Kolten Stewart as Roger Davis, and luncheon attendee Masini McDermott as a soloist with “Seasons of Love,” both displayed their captivating stage presence and incredible vocality. There wasn’t a dry eye in the theatre as the lights were raised at the end. The story itself is a touching and multifaceted look into the lives of down-and-out struggling creatives trying to get by in Lower Manhattan’s East Village, with the haunting gravitas of HIV/AIDS.
Sustenance was needed, and after a quick change, we were off to dinner at Bluebird restaurant, where the food was mouthwatering, and the service was exceptional. We returned to the Tom Patterson Theatre to hit the red carpet for the opening of Wedding Band. Everyone was bejewelled, melanated, with skin glistening under the hues of an orange sunset. Ask a theatregoer in the town, and they will tell you. We flaunted like a peacock in a full tailfeather spread. It was a sight to behold.
Wedding Band was such an engaging and powerful production. The spectacular performances of each castmate upheld White’s stellar direction. Antoinette Rudder was sensational as Julia Augustine. She was met with rousing applause during the afterparty. It’s a thought-provoking play that will have you seeking meaningful discussions and analysis of the experience. Because I have the undeniable urge to speak more about the play, I will end here and say that It’s definitely a must-see during this year’s Stratford Festival season.
Go to Stratford and relive your high school visit, family getaways or create a new experience of your own. There are many talented Black actors to support in the scheduled plays this season. Besides, there’s nothing better than seeing a reflection of yourself in the crowd, beaming with pride. Many Black actors can attest to that. For me, every visit to Stratford gets better and better. I look forward to returning this season to see more shows and making it an annual excursion for a time to come. Ladies and gentlemen, don’t miss out. You’ve been forewarned.
Thank you to Stratford Festival, Melissa Mae Shipley and Ann Swerdfager for your hospitality and an unforgettable time.