“The Sisters-in-law”: a complaint of racial discrimination in a theatre can go ahead

«Les Belles-Soeurs»: une plainte pour discrimination raciale dans un théâtre peut aller de l’avant

Ravi Jain is the founding artistic director of Why Not Theatre in Toronto.

21 November 2019 11: 15 am

Updated at 15h17

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“The Sisters-in-law”: a complaint of racial discrimination in a theatre can go ahead

Amy Smart

The canadian Press

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VANCOUVER — When Ravi Jain has heard of the experience of an actress of Victoria, who said being denied an audition for a role in “The sisters-in-law” because she was black, he was immediately able to identify with the story.

Ravi Jain, who is the founding artistic director of Why Not Theatre in Toronto, says that some stage directors, canadians have long argued that the actors of a visible minority can’t play certain roles because they are held at a time and in a place that is exclusionary.

“This is simply not true. This is a limited view of the time and of the power structures that existed”, he advanced.

He made the remarks after a decision of the Court of human rights in British Columbia, earlier this month, authorizing a complaint to Tenyjah Indra McKenna against the Victoria Theatre Guild and Dramatic School and its director volunteer.

Court documents indicate that Tenyjah Indra McKenna had contacted the director Judy Treloar in August 2017 about an audition to play a role in the production by the theatre of the story of Michel Tremblay’s “Les Belles-soeurs”.

Judy Treloar has first invited the actress to take on the scenario, but when she told him that she was a black woman, the director replied that a black woman would be neither a sister nor a neighbour in the room, according to the documents.

“Even if I don’t like to say this, the fifteen women in this room are from Quebec and the play takes place in Montreal in 1965. A black woman would not be a neighbour or a sister in this room, but I would like to meet you and hear you read”, one can read in an email sent by Judy Treloar to Tenyjah Indra McKenna.

The documents indicate that Judy Treloar said that his comment was not based on racial prejudice or stereotypes, but rather of months of study and preparation for the production of the piece. It describes the subject of the play as “the quebec women white, xenophobic, working-class montreal neighborhood of Plateau-Mont-Royal”, the report documents.

Tenyjah Indra McKenna has put in doubt the source of Judy Treloar in an e-mail response, adding that she grew up in Montreal.

“Interestingly, in the 1960s, my family lived and worked in the same borough of Montreal which is home to “The sisters-in-law”,” wrote the actress.

“I also wonder – if you hesitate to call an actress who is black to ensure the historical accuracy, how many actresses in quebec or francophones are you going to choose?”

Since then, the theater has offered 1500 $ to Tenyjah Indra McKenna, put in place diversity training for board members, production staff, and employees, and appointed two mediators to deal with complaints of harassment or discrimination.

The court decided that this was not enough to dismiss the complaint.

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«Les Belles-Soeurs»: une plainte pour discrimination raciale dans un théâtre peut aller de l’avant

Tenyjah Indra McKenna has filed a complaint against the Victoria Theatre Guild and Dramatic School and the director Judy Treloar.

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Judy Treloar, and the theater refused to comment on this story and Tenyjah Indra McKenna could not be attached.

“The Langham Court Theatre expects to meet the Court of human rights and fully cooperate with him, and could not comment on issues still before the court, while the process is still ongoing,” said the theatre in a statement.

This case is relaunching the debate in the world of canadian theatre on the best way to promote inclusion.

Ravi Jain sees parallels with “Salt-Water Moon”, a piece of theatre in which the plot takes place in Newfoundland with white actors, even if persons of color were certainly in this province at this time. The production of the play by his company had a distribution multicultural, which freed of the “shackles” of realism, he explained.

“We have released in an imaginary space where little mattered to the people who told the story. It was that of the people, and we delve into the humanity of these characters and the depth of their relationship. It transcends ethnicity and culture.”

The Why Not Theatre is one of many places in Canada have been praised for having challenged the way the stories are told. Ravi Jain said that this trend was only accelerated since the Canada Council for the arts had launched a five-year strategic plan in 2016 based on inclusion.

But, for some, progress does not necessarily ignore the ethnic origin. Omari Newton, a successful actor, and creator based in Vancouver, says that to completely ignore the ethnic origin can have the effect of erasing the histories of colonialism and oppression.

“I think that the distribution colorblind is a form of ridicule of racism,” he said. “In my opinion, you should make a distribution of conscious way, that is to say, choose depending on the piece and the role. Feel free to choose which you want. Acknowledge just the implications that choosing people from different backgrounds will have on the story that you will tell.”

Omari Newton said that he had been shocked to see a production of”They were all my sons” by Arthur Miller on Broadway, with a cast diverse. The piece was created at a time when intercultural marriage was still illegal in the United States. However, the distribution proposed marriage interracial, a child is métis and a family with a white brother and a sister black, without any explanation.

“It looked like an alternative universe where colonialism never happened, the civil war not over, the movement for civil rights either, so it made me leave the room,” he explained.

Omari Newton, who is black, encourages people from minorities to tell their own stories, writing them, putting them in a scene and producing.

“I understood a decade ago that if I wanted to play in the kind of stories that interested me or see them on stage, I had to produce, write them down or put them in a scene,” he noted.

His first play, ‘The Lamentable Tragedy of Sal Capone”, follows a young group of hip-hop in the wake of a shooting to the police. The first took place in 2013, and the piece was mounted last year at the national Arts Centre.

No valid excuse

Diane Brown, who has ridden “The sisters-in-law” in Vancouver last year with diversified distribution, said of his side that there is no valid excuse for exclusion.

“The actors can play all the roles, women can play roles that are traditionally male; this occurs even on large scenes of Canada”, has she supported.

Boomer Stacey, executive director of the professional Association of canadian theatres, said that it is important that the theatres wonder why they choose certain stories, and examine the way in which they address the public today.

The organization, which has both a committee on cultural diversity and a committee on equity and diversity, creates a space where theatre practitioners discuss the inclusion and ways to better reflect the diversity in the topics discussed, the boards of directors and other leadership positions.

He noted that the community theatres, such as the Langham Court Theatre, where the production of Victoria had been staged, had perhaps not even support.

As the world of canadian theatre still has a way to go in terms of diversity, Boomer Stacey believes that the path is already considerable. In his association only, he noted that he himself was a person from a minority, just as the president, the vice-president and several members of the board of directors.

“We are trying to not only preach to people that they need to be diversified, we try to live ourselves.”

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