Montreal Theatre Hub’s Camila Fitzgibbon recently spoke to director and Tableau D’Hôte co-founder Mike Payette, co-producer and Tableau D’Hôte co-founder Mathieu Murphy-Perron, and Black Theatre Workshop Artistic Director Quincy Armorer in anticipation of the two local companies’ first co-production together.
It was on the unusually warm spring day of April 10th, 1734 that the city of Montréal was set ablaze by an enslaved Black woman.
Or so the story says.
Tried and convicted of setting fire to her owner’s home, Portuguese-born Marie-Josèphe Angélique was brought to Nouvelle France after being sold in 1725 to French businessman François Poulin de Francheville. In her incessant fight for freedom, she was condemned, tortured, and publicly executed – with no factual evidence of her suspected crime of arson.
The likely culprit? Systemic racism – the central subject at the burning heart of late Montréal-born playwright Lorena Gale’s award-winning script.
Angélique received its world premiere in 1998 with the Alberta Theatre Project, soon finding subsequent life on American stages. This spring season, however, Black Theatre Workshop and Tableau D’Hôte Theatre bring the historical play to Québec for the very first time. It’s a production that’s long been overdue here in the city, but which has gained considerable momentum now in tow of Montréal’s 375th and Canada’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
A forgotten story risen from the ashes
Lorena Gale’s connection with Black Theatre Workshop traces back to 1984 when she was first appointed its Artistic Director. It was only inevitable, then, that META award-winning director Mike Payette, who from 2013 to 2016 served Black Theatre Workshop as its Assistant Artistic Director, would eventually come across her script.
“When I initially read it I immediately noticed this sort of heightened and stylized quality to it,” he recounts. The alleged richness of the late Gale’s Angélique draws from elements of documentary theatre (based on actual trial transcripts) as well as prose and poetry to investigate the years leading up to the title character’s execution.
Blending all of these artistic practices together, however, were aspects of traditional African and indigenous culture – including song and dance (this particular production features original music performed live by Sixtrum Percussion Ensemble and choreography by Ghislaine Doté). It was thus in the combination of all of these multidisciplinary elements that the visionary director ultimately saw the theatrical merit of the piece.
“I also realized at that point, however, that this was truly going to be a large scale show,” and the search for a production partner-in-crime began.
Building the dream team
Co-founded in 2005 by Mike Payette and Mathieu Murphy-Perron, Tableau D’Hôte is one of Montréal’s few longstanding independent theatre companies on the scene. Even with the organization’s repute of critical and peer acclaim, Angélique was nonetheless considered to be a massive, risky undertaking.
“A project like this extremely difficult on your resources,” explains Perron. “So, right off the bat we decided that we were definitely not going to venture into it alone. Mike and I began workshopping the play a couple of years ago and we eventually got Black Theatre Workshop and the Segal Centre onboard with us. It actually all kind of came together in a nice, easy and serendipitous way.”
Black Theatre Workshop Artistic Director Quincy Armorer confirms his immediate acceptance of the proposal: “I love the work that Tableau D’Hôte does and I find that our mandates are a perfect marriage”. As Canada’s oldest Black theatre company, BTW is committed to promoting the works of Black artists. In partnering with Tableau D’Hôte, whose focus is to provide a platform for Canadian voices, the mutual goal herein is to thrust the social issue of systemic racism to the forefront.
Surprisingly, it’s the first time both companies have joined forces to co-produce.
The programming of the show also marked the final collaboration between Perron and Payette at Tableau D’Hôte before the latter left to take over the reins at Geordie Productions last year.
“For us to be able to end our partnership like this seems very fitting and I’m glad we were able to make it happen,” Perron graciously reflects.
The cast of Angélique
A cold case brought to light
Even as one of the greatest unsolved mysteries of Canadian history, Angelique’s poignant story of resistance and resilience has remained largely unknown – even among our own community – until recently.
“What struck me most about this script when I first read it was my own lack of awareness of this part of Montréal history,” reveals Perron. “I strive to be someone who is informed and critical of our past and I was ashamed to learn that this was an important piece of it that I hadn’t previously heard of.”
Despite a widespread perception to the contrary, the nation has an extensive record of exploited slave labour before and under European colonization. For one disconcerting reason or another, there still seems to be a denouncement of that history.
“Our country has a fairly morbid past that we don’t talk about enough and that we gloss over because Canadians are these kooky little polite creatures,” muses Perron.
Armorer adds, “there’s this misconception that Canada was the place where black people only came to through the Underground Railroad to escape captivity in the United States. Many still don’t realize, however, that we have a legacy of slavery here within our borders as well. We need to remember that this is not just where the blacks came to freedom; that knowledge needs to be a part of our vocabulary. Hopefully this play is going to help rectify that”.
“Then is now and now is then” – in reference to the play’s timelessness
The urgent question Angélique asks that inherently makes it relevant to contemporary audiences is one of racial and gender hierarchy: how much has the state’s relationship to Black lives actually changed since it executed a slave woman in the 18th century for a crime it had no proof she committed?
“Globally speaking, we can probably assume that today there is more dialogue about the social and cultural realities of systemic oppression,” opines Payette.
“I’d say things have improved,” suggests Armorer, “but sometimes we fool ourselves into thinking they are better or further advanced than they actually are. Angélique serves as a reminder of that.”
In terms of what audiences can expect from this reimagined retelling, “there are some idiosyncrasies in the script that might ward some people off,” hints Perron. “Lorena really allows herself to play with time and space in a way that might jolt audiences. You’ll get a better sense of that when you come to see it.”
Akin to the centrepiece figure of its narrative, it promises to be outspoken, controversial and intrepid in spirit.
“This is really one of those shows that needs to be experienced live in the flesh to be fully understood,” agrees Payette. “The audience is very much an integral part of the play and our hope is that after each performance they will be inspired to join in on the dialogue on what it represents to them.”
Armorer concludes with the team’s collective sentiment. “I’m really excited about the team that we’ve put together and for the opportunity to finally share this important but forgotten story with an audience,” he conveys. “We truly hope that this will spark some further life for the play.”
Don’t miss the forthcoming production that, as with its illustrious protagonist, is itself now certain to leave a mark on our social, political and artistic landscape.
Interview by Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon
Angélique presented by Black Theatre Workshop in co-production with Tableau D’Hôte Theatre plays at The Segal Centre for the Performing Arts Studio (5170 Chemin de la Côte Ste Catherine, H3W 1M7) from March 16th to April 2nd, 2017. Tickets are $19-27 and can be purchased by calling the Box Office at (514) 739-7944 or online at www.segalcentre.org.
Jenny Brizard, Chip Chuipka, Darla Contois
Karl Graboshas, Tristan D. Lalla
Olivier Lamarche, France Rolland
Directed by Mike Payette
Original Music Composed & Performed by Sixtrum Percussion Ensemble
Choreographed by Ghislaine Doté
Set & Costume Design by Eo Sharp
Lighting Design by David Perreault Ninacs
Assistant Set & Costume Design: Zoe Roux
Stage Manager: Birdie Gregor
Apprentice Stage Manager: Gabriela Saltiel