Portia White. Kay Livingston. Mary Ann Shadd. Rosemary Brown. Viola Desmond. Carrie Best.

Our high school history curriculum may have glossed over them, but for the first time this Friday night, these six black Canadian women take the front stage in Flowers and Thorns, an original play by local playwright Jason Rip.

The play was commissioned by London’s chapter of the Congress of Black Women of Canada in light of Canada’s 150th anniversary.

“These women made quite a contribution to Canada’s history,” explains Elrah Robinson, the treasurer for the Congress and producer of the play. “We thought it was important to bring them to the wider consciousness of Canada.”

Some of the women, such as Viola Desmond, have received widespread recognition from the Canadian government. Desmond’s face has been slated to feature on the new $10 bill.

But generally, their names have been lost in the tide of culture and thinking over the years, says Robinson.

A seasoned storyteller

Director and writer Jason Rip has an affinity for telling stories about marginalized groups. The course of his career has included topics such as transgenderism, local tales of the underground railroad in the Brickenden award-nominated My Name is Margaret Harman, and an upcoming play about autism.

Although Rip was up to the task, writing the plot for Flowers and Thorns meant digging into parts of the past he never had before.

“We’re dealing with people who have been neglected,”  says Rip. “What we know about history is what we’re taught in school. I want audiences to know about these six characters, but also for them to consider who is forgotten when people tell history.”

Another challenge came out of the prospect of telling six stories from six different points in time. To get around this, Rip devised an otherworldly scenario wherein the women discuss their lives and achievements in Viola Desmond’s beauty parlour – in heaven.

This element of the plot may be fantastical, yet the research and production have very real implications for everyone involved, including its cast.

A personal first

Sherine Thomas-Holder, who portrays Nova Scotian journalist Carrie Best, has been acting in London for over 20 years. Flowers and Thorns is the first all-black cast she has been a part of.

Like Rip, Thomas-Holder came out of the experience of the play with a stronger sense of history, which she hopes to impart on the audiences as well.

“I want the audience to walk away and start having conversation,” says Thomas-Holder. “I want them to think, I didn’t just go to a play, I went to an educational performance.”

It’s the hope of the Congress of Black Women that the play will eventually be performed on a smaller scale in schools and community groups to promote awareness of black women’s roles in Canada. In the meantime, Friday’s one-time performance will feature music composed by Steven Hallowitz, with lyrics written by Rip, and sung by former Detroit Opera House member Amber Tomlin.

Tomlin portrays Portia White, Canada’s first black Canadian concert singer to gain international acclaim.

“I feel very honoured to showcase women who have faced adversity, and show their perseverance. It’s definitely relevant with everything that’s gone on lately,” says Tomlin. “I think it’s a story of hope for anyone who feels that they’re up against a struggle, that you can make it. Look at what these women did.”

Indeed, it is the characters’ strength that makes the central theme of Rip’s play, and inspires his title.

Flowers and Thorns honours Canada’s 150th anniversary, has been a year in the making, and shows for one night only (for now). It’s been a long road to the stage, but at long last these heroes have arrived to their rightful place where we can all hear their stories.

Tickets are available at Ticketfly or at the Central Library: $18 in advance, $20 at the door. The show runs from 6PM to 8PM at the Wolf Performance Hall on Friday, January 26th. 

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