Duck the gatekeepers: Black theatre in Ottawa requires blazing your own path

OTTAWA- July 09, 2020 -- Jacqui Du Toit (storyteller/actress) and Jamaal Jackson (spoken word poet, arts educator). Photo by Jean Levac/Postmedia News assignment 134140 Covid

When Jacqui Du Toit first arrived in Ottawa in 2008, she had never seen so many white people in one place. 

Born, raised and educated in theatre arts in South Africa, the actor-dancer-storyteller recalls walking down Bank Street clutching her backpack to her chest, trying to avoid the gaze of passersby. 

“People looked at me like I was strange,” she said in an interview. “I’d never been in a city with so many white people and I was afraid that something would happen to me. How ridiculous is that?”

What happened over the next few years involved a lot of knocking on doors, going to auditions and trying to break into the tight-knit clique of the Ottawa theatre scene, without much success. One day, she lost her cool at a public meeting hosted by organizers of a theatre festival. 

“I just got so fed up,” Du Toit recalls. “I was the only woman of colour in that room. I was so shocked I stood up and said, ‘I don’t understand, you are Canada. From the world I come from, where people like me have gone through apartheid, Canada is seen as this multi-cultural, beautiful place. We know discrimination and oppression but why am I feeling it more here than I did back home?’ 

OTTAWA- July 09, 2020 -- Jacqui Du Toit (storyteller/actress) and Jamaal Jackson (spoken word poet, arts educator). Photo by Jean Levac/Postmedia News assignment 134140 Covid
OTTAWA- July 09, 2020 — Jacqui Du Toit (storyteller/actress). Jean Levac/Postmedia News

“I was only seeing one kind of theatre on stage,” she explains, “and that was white theatre. British white theatre. I didn’t see any Inuit, Indigenous, African or Caribbean theatre. It made no sense. I got so mad, I think I stormed out. I was so frustrated by what I was seeing and the rejections.” 

Things have improved in recent years as artistic directors of Ottawa’s professional theatre companies, including the Great Canadian Theatre Company and the National Arts Centre, work to increase diversity and representation in their seasons. The NAC also launched an Indigenous theatre company last year.

While these efforts are applauded, Black creatives say it’s still a challenge to break into Ottawa’s theatre industry. Unlike bigger cities, where theatre companies like Montreal’s Black Theatre Workshop, and Toronto’s b current and Obsidian Theatre are devoted to Black productions, Ottawa lacks a professional, Black-owned company. 

Du Toit and business partner Jamaal Jackson Rogers, Ottawa’s former English-language poet laureate, are among those striving to diversify the whiteness of the theatre landscape in the nation’s capital. 

About five years ago, with Rogers’ brother, they opened a venue,The Origin Arts and Community Centre,with a goal to help emerging artists develop their craft and provide space to host performances of their own and others.The next step is to launch a theatre company that will focus on Black stories in Ottawa. They wanted to start this summer, but the pandemic has stalled the vision. 

“We have to wait a bit because this is something we want to do in person,” said Rogers. “Our hope is to start writing our own plays and create a space for youths that love the stage, from the technicality of it all the way to setup and management, and to learn all about stage performance while gaining experience as practitioners themselves.” 

Rogers, who was born in Toronto, raised in Guyana and came to Ottawa by the time he was in Grade 4, is also an arts educator who understands the barriers facing racialized youths who may be curious about careers in the arts. 

Among those barriers are a lack of role models on stage, a perception that “high culture” such as theatre excludes people of colour, the cost of training or lessons, the cost of renting studio and performance space, directors who are afraid to take risks and sometimes the cultural expectations of one’s family. 

“There are cultural things going on, where certain communities don’t see artistic practice as a viable option for their brown-skinned child,” Rogers said. “Their parents don’t see a child surviving and thriving in the arts.” 

Jamaal Jackson Rogers is one of two poets laureate named this week for the City of Ottawa. Wayne Cuddington/Postmedia
Jamaal Jackson Rogers. Wayne Cuddington/Postmedia

For Du Toit, who came to Canada as a performer with a South African circus troupe, it’s been a long journey. The company went bankrupt during the Canadian tour, and Du Toit decided to stay for a while. After she met her former partner and became pregnant, the couple returned to South Africa until his career prompted a return to Ottawa in 2011. 

“I think that’s when it really struck me: ‘Oh my gosh, I’m in Canada and what am I going to do for my career as an actor?’ I found myself so lost in Ottawa,” she said. 

The next three years were a challenge for the young mom, an emotional rollercoaster of auditions and rejections. “There were no roles for women of colour. Even though I did go to various auditions, I felt it was maybe my accent, or maybe I wasn’t white enough, or maybe not Black enough, or maybe I wasn’t good enough. No one wanted me to be in their plays,” she says. 

Ultimately, her outburst at the public meeting proved to be a turning point, and Du Toit was empowered, determined to follow her own creative path. She started performing monthly at a local artist’s gallery. She created theatre to present in people’s homes, and hosted theatre nights in cozy venues such as Pressed, GigSpace and Cafe Nostalgica. 

One night, a performer cancelled at the last minute and Du Toit decided to tell a story based on a character she was developing. The experience left her with goosebumps. 

“I shared this story and the feeling I had was like nothing I had felt onstage,” she says. “I felt the spirit of the story. It was the strangest and most bizarre thing. It was literally like Jacqui did not exist and the story came through me. It was like I was watching myself from the audience, and when it ended, I was back in my body and everybody was standing up in awe. I wanted to get that feeling back.”

She was soon discovered by the Ottawa StoryTellers group, whose members welcomed her engaging tales. When she went to artistic director Laurie Fyffe with an idea for a one-woman show, Fyffe told her to go for it. 

“I think that was the first time a professional artist in Ottawa saw me as a fellow professional artist and actor, and I didn’t feel any form of tokenism,” Du Toit said. 

The show she wrote and directed wasThe Hottentot Venus – Untold, inspired by the story of Saartjie Baartman, a curvaceous South AfricanKhoisanwoman who was taken to Europe in the 1800s to be displayed in freak shows as the Hottentot Venus.

The award-winning production premiered in 2015 at The Origin, and Du Toit says her career has been “flowing a bit more” since then. She was cast in a leading role in the GCTC’s production of The Drowning Girls last year, which felt like an achievement because she wasn’t chosen for her skin colour. 

“That was really important personally because I didn’t feel I was a token. I was cast because I was good for the role,” she said. The critics at the Prix Rideau Awards agreed — she earned the 2019 award for outstanding female performance. 

Du Toit and Rogers both believe that change is overdue, but they don’t want to wait for opportunities to land in their laps or gatekeepers to open doors. 

“The only way to get better, get more diverse and strengthen and represent the vibrancy of this city, is to create opportunities that will allow these things to happen,” said Rogers. 

“That’s why Jacqui and I do what we do. As people of colour, we want to show that you can be a professional artist. We want to break the stereotype that you can’t live in Ottawa with a family and be a full-time creative.”

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