In anticipation of its World Premiere this January 30th, Montreal Theatre Hub spoke with four voices of Tableau D’Hôte Theatre’s Blackout: Mathieu Murphy-Perron (Director / Writing Unit & Tableau D’Hôte Co-founder, Artistic, and Executive Producer), Rodney Diverlus (Choreographer), Dakota Jamal Wellman (Writing Contributor / Performer), and Sophie-Thérèse Stone-Richards (Performer). Read the full interview piece below.
This interview has been edited for purposes of clarity and length.
In the spring of 1968, six Caribbean students at Sir George Williams University (now known as Concordia) accused a white biology lecturer of racism for distributing failing marks to his Black students. The school’s investigative committee dismissed the charges, leading to a student occupation of the Computer Centre on the 9th floor of the Henry F. Hall Building in protest of the unfair hearings.
As a negotiated agreement between the administration and the complainants fell through at the last minute, what began as peaceful sit-ins and demonstrations turned into a full-fledged conflict in 1969 marked by over one hundred arrests, widespread damage, and a mysterious fire – all resulting in what has come to be known as the largest student uprising in the history of our country.
Precisely 50 years later and in the exact same building where it all went down, the buried voices of the Sir George Williams Affair are now given new opening with the World Premiere of Blackout in Tableau D’Hôte Theatre’s new artistic season of “Longing to Remember, Refusing to Forget”.
Genesis of Artistry
From page to stage, Blackout has been a mere one year in the making – a noteworthy feat given the scale of the production – and its grand premiere is poignantly aligned with the golden anniversary of the very events it recounts.
A collective creation devised by a writing unit comprising Montreal’s most eminent artistic forces, the play is an abstracted exploration and stylized retelling of the denunciations, occupations, and protests of the Concordia Computer Affair.
While most of the characters portrayed by the ensemble of twelve actors are fictional, the incidents are factual, and the script is noted as being developed from collected newspaper articles, transcriptions of court scenes, and interviews on the occurrence.
The shape and form of the resulting creation, however, came as a surprise to its own masterminds.
“What I was expecting to be a show largely grounded in found text ended up having an incredible amount of creative writing instead,” reveals director (and Tableau D’Hôte Co-founder, Artistic and Executive Producer) Mathieu Murphy-Perron. “All of the initial collaborators were extremely generous with their time, energy, and words. Those initial workshops generated a great deal of poetic and movement inspired pieces.”
Enter Rodney Diverlus – Haiti-born and Toronto-based dancer, choreographer, actor, director, and producer – who, here in his first collaboration with Tableau D’Hôte, contributes with choreography and movement direction for the multidisciplinary production.
The piece is further served and elevated by his work as co-founder of Black Lives Matter Toronto, with his industry of campaigning against violence and systemic racism being reflected in his craft.
“I resonate a lot with the experiences of these characters of not being understood and feeling disempowered and overburdened by injustice,” Diverlus divulges. “I have grown into my life as an activist out of necessity, to change the surroundings around me, and to raise issue with issue as I see it. I feel a deep personal connection with the stories of these people who have come together to resist.”
Blackout, while textually driven, heavily incorporates movement as a basis for creation as the script dances between realism and a more ethereal, poetic realm. Expect a highly stylized, theatrical aesthetic – one that can be described as a fusion of Pedestrian, Black resistance, and Caribbean-inspired movement.
In developing the contemporary conception, “I was thinking about these students and their cultural background,” explains Diverlus.
At times, thus, it references tradition; at others, it draws from the vocabulary of the protest culture. “There’s a lot of chanting, stomping, and clapping as performers create sounds and rhythms with bodies and space. We’re experimenting with a lot of vernacular gestures, repetitive pulses, and polyrhythms”.
The original soundscape for the production is designed by Elena Stoodley, whose complex electronic loops establish the playing environment.
“When Mathieu approached me, he really wanted movement and sound to be integrated holistically throughout the show, and so we’ve tried to seamlessly interweave the score in in a way that’s organic and natural and that supports the important storytelling aspects of this piece,” discloses the choreographer.
“Rodney’s role in the artistry of what we’re creating is tremendous,” acknowledges Murphy-Perron.
In all instances, the goal is to establish a sense of the collective.
When The Right Way is Always Wrong
History has it that when the marginalized collective bind to speak up, however, they are most often met with disapproval.
META-nominated actor Dakota Jamal Wellman – who was part of the initial collaborators during the early creation of what would become Blackout – weighs in.
“The biggest theme that I can think of in this show is ‘appropriate forms of protest’, especially if you are a minority,” he says. “The idea of valuing property over people and humanity is another troubling one.”
In the Computer Centre Affair, key student demonstrators were labelled “ringleaders” and sentenced to prison while the accused professor – who was suspended during the crisis – was eventually reinstated and acquitted of all charges.
Wellman elaborates. “This whole incident has been labelled as a riot. Looking at the language, that implies that these students were violent and unruly against these peaceful administrators. Reading some of the testimonials after the fact, you come across criticisms such as ‘if only the students could had made their reports more respectfully or civilly.’ There was a real divide between people.”
The provocative play, then, begs the question: what is the correct form of protestation?
“We live in a world where the dominant society will always tell those they oppress what the right and wrong ways to protest are,” analyzes Murphy-Perron. “There’s a lot of tone policing that happens when Black and Indigenous People of Colour express their discontent.
“There’s no right way for racialized folk to express their rage – no matter what they do.”
Since its inception in 2005, Tableau D’Hôte Theatre has been critically and publicly acclaimed for bringing such voices to the fore, and the successes of its most recent productions of Angélique and Hosanna are testaments to the relevance of these efforts. Having evolved from its original mandate of staging the works of acclaimed Canadian playwrights to producing more historically-based theatrical adaptations, Blackout emerges as yet another accomplishment for the award-winning company in championing local and underrepresented stories – and artists – on stage.
“When I first envisioned this show, I expected it to be largely actors of colour, and maybe have one or two white people play the [university] administrators. At one point during discussions the collaborators were, like, ‘Why? I could play University President D.B. Clarke’,” reveals Murphy-Perron. “I’m hoping that the sheer act of having twelve actors of colour on stage will send the message as to what is possible in our creative landscape.”
Alongside Wellmen and among the other fresh-faced joining the performance ensemble is Sophie-Thérèse Stone-Richards, a recent graduate and Valedictorian of Concordia University’s Fine Arts Department (who also happens to have a second degree in math). She makes her professional stage acting debut with Blackout.
“For a long time now there’s only been one predominant story of the black person in the media, and that’s the story of the black man as a criminal,” says Stone-Richards. “You never hear the stories about black doctors, inventors, writers, actors – or even of black romances. They exist – we’re just not telling them. And then, when they eventually do get told, sometimes only decades later, it’s the person who has had the voice the entire time telling the story of someone else. It’s frustrating.
“Black excellence has to jump through three times as many hoops. And when you earn it, my goodness do you feel like you’ve earned it.”
She proceeds to emphasize the importance of the multiplicity of voices, stories, and perspectives in the arts, “a conversation that has been going on for decades but that is only now receiving the space it deserves.”
“Fortunately, we’re getting into this time of wanting to hear everyone out,” she adds. “That means it might be loud for a while, but I’m okay with that. I’d rather people be heard – we’ll find the balance later. There’s just been too much of one voice for too long.”
Why half a century of waiting to hear these voices?, one wonders. (As a Concordia alumna myself, I am ashamed and angered at not having been exposed to this part of Montreal history prior to the announcement of this production).
“The events that inspired Blackout happened not that long ago,” assures Murphy-Perron. “And if you think about it, that’s our parents’ Montreal. Fifty years is not that far behind in time.”
Diverlus explicates. “What I find fascinating about this show is that I read the text and I can think of so many similar experiences that have happened to me and people around me. A lot has changed [over five decades], of course, but we’re still talking about anti-racism and inclusion and equity. A show like this is still incredibly relevant to today’s Black communities.”
Chimes Wellman: “today we have the language to call out offences and injustices, but these students were essentially advocating for the same things that we are still advocating for today. Hearing their complaints, it all sounds way too familiar.”
To further illustrate that the ideas and the themes themselves are not era bound, Blackout plays with time to great extent, stretching it and condensing it.
A Call for Compassion
Times have changed, to the agreement of all, but developments in institutionalized racism, immigration policies, and police brutality are still to be procured. Mathieu Murphy-Perron’s shepherding of this production, however, is in and of itself a progression of thought and an evolution of our times.
In asking all interviewees what they would wish for audiences to extract from Blackout, the team echoes similar sentiments.
“This is a story of black love, black rage, and black solidarity that I’m simply hoping folks will see and hear,” says the director.
“We just want people to listen”, contributes Wellman. “You don’t have to agree with everything that everyone is saying, but listening is important. From there we can have actual dialogue.”
“I’m hoping people will come out with compassion – compassion for human beings that you might not have had it for before,” pitches in Stone-Richards. “What I repeatedly see about the situation of these students is that they weren’t met with any sympathy or empathy, right from the beginning of the issue through to the end of it. Watching the situation escalate is heartbreaking because there was never any compassion to begin with. Fighting to be heard by people who don’t feel you deserve the thing you’re asking for feels like a lost cause.”
Concludes Diverlus, “I personally hope that audiences will be inspired by the bravery and courage of these students. They risked it all – their time, their careers, their ability to be free – but they had no choice but to stand up and say enough is enough. For anybody that’s ever felt oppressed, marginalized, and as if the systems and spaces they’re inhabiting are deliberately disenfranchising them, there’s an incredible amount of strength that can be driven from these characters. I hope they find inspiration from this story of people reclaiming power, integrity, pride, and standing in their own truth.”
Interview conducted and written by Montreal Theatre Hub Editor-in-Chief Camila Fitzgibbon
A World Premiere presented by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre and developed in collaboration with Playwrights’ Workshop Montréal
Directed by Mathieu Murphy-Perron
Assistant directors: Tamara Brown, Shanti Gonzales
Choreography: Rodney Diverlus
Stage Manager: Lucia Corak
Lighting Design: Audrey-Anne Bouchard
Sound Design: Rob Denton, Elena Stoodley
Set Design: Sophie El Assad
Costume Design: Noémi Poulin
Projection Design: Jaclyn Turner
Makeup Design: Pamela Warden
Lucinda Davis, Kym Dominique Ferguson, Briauna James, Gita Miller, Michelle Rambharose, Sophie-Thérèse Stone-Richards, Shauna Thompson, Dakota Jamal Wellmen with Maryline Chery, Marie Hall, Justin Johnson and Jahlani Knorren
January 30th – February 10th, 2019
D.B. Clarke Theatre
Concordia University’s Pavillion Henry F. Hall Building
1455 Boulevard de Maisonneuve West, Montréal
General admission: $27 + taxes
Student/Senior/Reduced: $22 + taxes