Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Black actors see slow increase in theatrical opportunities

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WINNIPEG stages have traditionally been pasty white, with actors of colour a rare sight.

So it comes as a surprise that our theatres have never before had as many black actors treading the boards at the same time.

Winnipeg's flagship theatre opened its season with the American import Cookin' at the Cookery, an all-black bluesical about singer Alberta Hunter, while Prairie Theatre Exchange raised the curtain last week with blue/orange, which features Nigerian-born Torontonian Awaovieyi Agie in the pivotal role of a psychiatric patient named Christopher.

Meanwhile, the Manitoba Theatre for Young People has a mostly black cast touring Winnipeg schools with The Power of Harriet T., an inspiring tale of how one woman helped hundreds of American slaves escape to freedom in Canada via the underground railroad.

Is this all evidence of improved working opportunities for actors of colour on this continent?

That depends on which side of the border the auditions are on, perhaps.

"There's a black-out in the United States right now," says Marion J. Caffey, the New York author, director and choreographer of Cookin' at the Cookery. "We have no work. It's one of the leanest times ever for Afro-American actors.

"I think it's because of the Bush administration. It's OK to be racist again. His administration breeds corruption in politics and the good ol' boy network. It's OK to be older white males dominating society. It filters down and theatre budgets everywhere are getting whacked."

Andrew Moodie, who directs Harriet T., says the lot of black actors in Canada is certainly better than that of his fellow American stage performers, but it's not as welcoming as it should be.

"I think roles are opening up for actors and there are more black playwrights in Canada, uhhh, at least Toronto," says Moodie, who was so memorable as Sam in "Master Harold"... and the Boys at PTE last season. "It was really dire 10 years ago."

Few theatre-goers likely noticed the colourful kickoff to the local stage season, but former Winnipegger Cherissa Richards, who plays the young Harriet T., was not one of them.

What she sees infuses her with great hope.

"Changes are going on," says the 27-year-old actress, who left Winnipeg for the National Theatre School in Montreal two years ago. "It's starting to reflect what's happening in society. It's not the same white faces. It makes me proud to come home and be part of that change."

Moodie, her director, is especially delighted to see Cookin' packing them in at the big house.

"MTC proves you can cast actors of colour in major roles and succeed," he says. "Stratford (Festival) has yet to do that on its largest stage. Shaw and Stratford are tough places to crack for actors of colour. What makes me angry is that they don't even think about that in England, where there's been a black Romeo and a black Hamlet.

Marginal roles

"At Stratford, they might use actors of colour at the smaller theatre. To me, that's second-class-citizen stuff. That drives me crazy."

Young black actors like Agie know what to expect when they are offered parts on television and in movies -- marginal roles that reinforce a stereotype, perhaps as a gangster or a drug dealer.

Those cameos can pay more than a lead in a play. The trouble in Canada is that there are embarrassingly few homegrown Canadian TV dramas or comedies on the networks.

"I get to play the guy in prison, or once in a while a lawyer or cop number one or two," Agie says. "When a role like Christopher comes along, you thank God it exists."

Agie, 34, thought he'd hit the big time when he landed the part of Musa, who is rescued by American marines in the 2003 Bruce Willis thriller Tears of the Sun. He learned more than lines.

"I went in with a big part but didn't come out with a big part," he recalls without bitterness. "The story they were telling didn't involve me. I learned first and foremost this is a business. You see why all the money is given to Bruce Willis, because that's where the producers think they'll get their money back."

In New York, producers didn't think that Cookin' at the Cookery would pay dividends, even after ecstatic reviews and a sold-out seven-week run in a 99-seater. Not one producer approached Caffey about moving it to an off-Broadway theatre while 23 other plays (Caffey is still counting) did make the jump.

"That tells me we are in a racist society," Caffey says. "I think greed would make you want to do Cookin'. They must think that 'even though the show would make money, I don't want it there.' That's an even more frightening statement."

Caffey sees no reason for Afro-Americans to write new plays, while in Canada, fresh scripts from people like Moodie are the reason for the improved opportunity for actors of colour. His advice to Richards to write her own stories inspired her to form her own company called ColoUred Girls.

Says Richards: "You have to take charge of your own culture."

kevin.prokosh@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition October 30, 2003 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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