Standing on the Shoulders of Giants

15 Aug 2006

An interview with playwright Djanet Sears

“I Have a dream, a longing in my heart. A dream that one day, at any given time of the year, I will be able to find at least one play that is filled with people who look like me – telling stories about me, my family, my friends, my communities and my cultures.”
- Djanet Sears

I have always been a great believer in the saying that “even greater than the power of knowledge is the power to create knowledge.” Whether it is in the spheres of science, art, media or culture, those who define the paradigms basically govern our very reality. Those who see how things are and have the foresight and courage to envision a different and better future are few and far between. Rarer still are those who initiate those “paradigm shifts” which literally change the world.

I had the immense pleasure recently of meeting just such a visionary in the person of Djanet Sears. The acclaimed playwright, actor, director and Artistic Director of the tri-annual AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival knows a few things about shaking the status quo. Her play Harlem Duet is the first black work to be produced at the traditionally lilly-white Startford Festival’s 54-year history. It is also the first Stratford play to be directed by a black woman and featuring an all-black cast.

Sitting at the AfriCanadian Theatre Festival’s office off Queen West, Djanet Sears shows cautious optimism about this achievement. “It’s a good thing if it marks a lasting change” as she clarifies for AfroToronto.com.

Now that Startford has gone black, will it ever go back?

One thing is certain, however, regardless of whether or not Stratford keeps welcoming black plays, it is first and foremost the black theatre practitioners’ responsibility to maintain a strong and evolving canon of work which must remain mindful of the “shoulders on which we stand.” In Djanet Sears’ mind, this also means coming to a point where black plays, and thus the black experience, will become part of the fabric of the theatre world. Not just a fringe cultural experiment that is repeated periodically. Illustrating that point, she tells me a story about a woman who approached her after seeing an early production of Harlem Duet and said: “Oh my god, this is extraordinary …This is not a black play. It’s a human play.” Recounting her reaction, Djanet Sears says: “And I know she wanted me to be flattered … but all black plays are human plays. The black experience is a human experience. … the only way to broaden it is by sharing our stories.”

Although Sears believes in the importance of identifying the black experience as a human experience, she is nonetheless quite justifiably reluctant to let go of the “black classification” altogether within the context of the dominant culture. Again referring to an impromptu episode, she recalls organizing some books with a colleague: “I was sorting out, organizing some things with some people the other day … [classifying] black poetry, black plays, black fiction and non-fiction, then on to fiction, plays, whatever” and at some point, someone said “here are the real plays.” A bit taken aback, she retorqued: “The black play is the real one.”

“It comes very close to me in the bookshelf” she goes on to say.  “I’m the one who started the classification of black plays. … I worry that once we start releasing the qualification, it still becomes about them [and not about us] at this point and time.” Hence the importance of the tri-annual AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival. Djanet Sears also makes the point that “we should have an Asian playwrights festival. There should also be an Aboriginal playwrights festival.”

Further exploring the concept of the “paradigm shift” as it applies to the theatre world, we talk about the way in which traditional theatre practitioners view what they call a “well crafted” play with a beginning, middle and an end. As a new playwright-in-residence at Tarragon Theatre and a playwriting professor at the University of Toronto, Djanet Sears certainly has a sound grasp and appreciation for the academy and its dramaturgical rules and regulations. However, as she describes it, she also understands that traditional theatre practitioners can be “very Eurocentric.” There’s a very rigid definition of what constitutes “a good play.” “Everything else that is not this is not a good play. I think it’s rubbish” as she exclaims. “Remember the reviews for ‘Da Kink in my Hair? They were awful. And look what happened?” Black people went to see it in droves because it spoke to their reality in a genuine way. The traditional theatre practitioner might have gone to the play and thought: “Where’s the beginning, where’s the middle, where’s the end? Where’s the denouement?

“We are moved by different types of art. And there isn’t one way to write a play” Djanet Sears explains. Why are there so many books? Why are there so many films? “We use certain theories to support whatever we’re arguing … we are constantly doing battle culturally and it’s hard” she adds. Referring to a related personal experience, Sears tells me: “I remember someone [calling me after] I had just won a Governor General’s award for Harlem Duet, from a reputable company … and said we’d like to do a workshop of your play. … We feel that it doesn’t follow a strict Shakespearian style and we think that you could probably benefit from a workshop.”

Djanet Sears rhetorically wonders if some of these Shakespearian traditionalists have ever “read anything about the Blues Aesthetic or deconstructing the Blues.” That’s the structure she works from. In a nutshell, the “ Blues Aesthetic” is a cultural perspective that emerges from within the experiences of black people, facing the socio-political and economic conditions in contemporary America. She asks: “ So when ahdri zhina mandiela is doing her follow-up to Dark diaspora in dub … a wonderful dub piece with reggae epics and rhythmic roots, you can’t look at European forms and apply it to her work. You can’t do that. It’s not gonna happen! … But they don’t see our framework. And what we need to do is begin to recognize our frameworks.”

What Djanet Sears successfully accomplishes with Harlem Duet is taking a classical piece, Shakespeare’s Othello, and infusing it with modern ideas and experiences relatable to the black experience. “That story [of Othello leaving his black wife of many years for his white colleague Mona] is not unusual. I hear it from different black women. … I know this man.” With great pleasure and amusement, she tells me about the mixed audiences and the “dialogue between the audience and the stage.” “I come from that. I come from theatre that loves interaction. … I love the response. How vocal it is. … Even at Stratford … they make so much noise. It’s lovely. … if you get a group of three or more black people, and they are not afraid of their points of view, they will start making noise in a way that is wonderful.

One of the main things that Djanet Sears takes from the success of Harlem Duet, or any other successful black play for that matter, is that a canon of great work is being created upon the shoulders of great black theatre practitioners dating back to the 1800’s.

“I’m not ignorant of the [fact that] when Trey Anthony has a successful play, it reflects on me. … Because theatre is looking for the next play.” She describes how, in a way, her own social activism comes from that. “Because I’ve done good work and have connections, I can go to those people and say “come and have a look at this work.”

With the AfriCanadian Theatre Festival, Djanet Sears, and all those involved with the tri-annual festival, not only practice powerful social activism but also undertake the heroic task of ushering in a much-awaited paradigm shift. While most of Canada’s black theatre pioneers always performed works written by whites, this new generation of black playwrights are creating an independent canon and building culturally-specific frameworks upon which many more in the future will be able to stand on.

As Djanet Sears point out: “We stand on all those people who came before us. … In 1842 there was a coloured young men theatrical society. … blacks here in the 1840’s were protesting minstrel shows… a century and a half later people here were protesting Showboat. It seems new because all this history is forgotten. We’ve been doing this for a long time.” any lie to extricate themselves from trouble. They will even lie tha you did not see them in bed with the other woman very convincingly.

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