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Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Celebration: Black Theatre Workshop

Doudou Boicel (courtesy of Doudou Boicel)

I'm black and I'm proud 
On the eve of their 25th annual Vision Awards, Black Theatre Workshop looks back on their humble origins 40 years ago

by Richard Burnett 

One night in late 1964, a group of West Indian immigrants met in Montreal for dinner and founded what six years later would become Montreal's Black Theatre Workshop.

"We were drinking and talking about Trotsky and Che Guevara and how we would make the world over while listening to Sarah Vaughan and James Brown's Say It Loud, I'm Black and I'm Proud," remembers Dr. Clarence Baynes, now 78.

Baynes, BTW's founding executive director and still VP of the group's board of governors today, goes further into the history: "So we started the Trinidad and Tobago Association, of which the Trinidad and Tobago Drama Committee was one of several committees. We developed [plays] around calypsos and presented them at Westmount High. This was not what Montrealers were used to seeing back in 1970."

The Canadian Encyclopedia adds its dryer take on the story: "Although these productions were well received by the public, some TTA members became increasingly uncomfortable with a repertoire that was predominantly nostalgic. While remaining under the aegis of the TTA, Cynthia Allen's acting 'Black Workshop' oversaw the production of Laurris Elliot's original play, How Now Black Man, directed by Jeff Henry at the Centaur Theatre in 1970. The [next] year, the Workshop obtained its independence from the TTA and became the Black Theatre Workshop."

Clarence Bayne (courtesy Black Theatre Workshop)
Today, on its 40th anniversary, BTW is back at the Centaur. But the group would not have made it this far without the guidance of Baynes, who in the '70s ushered in the professionalism the company is known for. For his efforts, Baynes - also director of the Institute for Community Entrepreneurship and Development at Concordia University's John Molson School of Business - was awarded BTW's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award back in 1992.

"I was honoured," says Bayne. "It was like getting my PhD."

In January 2011, BTW will present it's 25th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award to legendary Montreal impresario Doudou Boicel, who was also inducted into Hour magazine's Montreal Rock'n'Roll Hall of Fame in 2008. Past Dr. King achievement-award winners include Oliver Jones, Rufus Rockhead, Oscar Peterson, Salome Bey, Michelle Sweeney, Charlie Biddle, Ranee Lee and Trevor Payne.

The awards have also helped BTW cross over to white audiences. "Initially our audiences were almost all black," Bayne says. "Today they are 60 to 70 per cent white."

Most importantly, BTW has helped African-Canadians forge a new Canadian identity. "You know, in 1960, I was one of the first four black managers ever hired by CN [Rail], as opposed to being a porter," Bayne says. "We were making history. That is what we [also] intended to do with BTW. We thought, 'This country will change to reflect me and I to reflect it.'"

Bayne continues, "BTW was founded to create a black Canadian literature and black Canadian theatre and today we are Canada's only black theatre company that [consistently] has a season at this point. It only adds to the responsibility and importance of what BTW does." 

BTW's Vision Celebration Gala at La Plaza-Holiday Inn (420 Sherbrooke W.), 

January 29, 2011. Tickets: $125 ($80 tax deductible)

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