Obsidian Theatre’s Philip Akin steps down as artistic director

In an exclusive interview, the leader of one of Canada's biggest Black theatre companies talks role models, mentorship, funding and being unapologetically Black

Philip Akin is stepping down from the helm at Obsidian Theatre, one of Canada’s most successful Black theatre companies.

Akin has been with the company since its founding two decades ago, and artistic director since 2006. In that time he’s accumulated more directing and leadership awards than any other Black director in the nation, including several Doras (2012’s Topdog/Underdog, 2017’s Master Harold… And The Boys, both for outstanding direction), and, earlier this week, the Premier’s Award for Excellence in the Arts.

His prolific acting career has taken him from CTV’s procedural Night Heat to the titular character in a Stratford production of Othello. Resigning at what many would see as a career peak stems from Akin’s desire to step aside and allow Canada’s next generation of Black artists to take charge.

He’ll be at Obsidian until the end of June 2020.

Who were your Black role models early on in your career?

From a Canadian point of view, there wasn’t anybody I modelled myself after. I never had a Black teacher, or frankly a non-white teacher ever in public school, high school or during my time at Ryerson. There was very little in terms of role models in the arts, though growing up in the 60s I had the requisite Malcolm X, Bobby Seale and the Black Panthers.

Many Black artists across Canada see you as their de facto role model.

I was having a conversation with folks at the Theatre Museum. They do these things where they slap you on tape for three hours, and you open up about everything in your life, and it was interesting to hear Andrew Moodie say that I was the first Black person he had seen on television. That was pretty bizarre. You don’t think you’re being a role model for anybody you just do the work you’re doing.

You’ve described your role at Obsidian as being the “tip of the spear.” Are we at war?

Last week, my daughter was questioning why I always seem to be on the attack. When I was growing up in Jamaica, my nickname was “tunder,” because if I didn’t get what I wanted I would lose it to the point where I would find a piece of concrete and smash my head against the wall. It was part of my DNA that walls should come down, and if it took smashing, then smashing it should be. My role is to be that point, that spear, that person who will be unapologetically Black.

What did Obsidian’s mentorship program offer Black artists that they couldn’t get in theatre school?

In theatre school, odds are they are the only Black person in their class. Odds are there are no Black teachers. Odds are they aren’t ever going to touch a Black play. Our apprenticeship program is for non-performers: designers, technicians and the like. If you’re going to change the ecology, you have to change it on all levels. Just hiring a couple of Black actors and having them be the raisin in the oatmeal, is not actually doing anything.

Imagine being a young Black teenager in the arts, but you’re not an actor. You saw the two actors of colour on the [stage], and you go backstage, and stage management is white, and the designers are white and the props builders are white, the wardrobes are white. You fit in nowhere. What we’ve done at Obsidian is work to find places where Black artists can feel like they fit in.

Obsidian is described as being culturally specific, but Black people aren’t a monolith. How do you find specificity within the burden of representing an entire race?

I think that’s one of those pejorative bullshit remarks that is used to undercut what Obsidian does. There’s a scattering of two or three Black theatre companies across the country. If there were two white theatres in this country, would people be asking them, “Where’s your story about Ukrainians in Winnipeg?”

We rep the best stories we can. We’re investing in our Canadian Somali project, we do Black plays from England, from the States develop our own plays here. We will develop and produce Black plays from wherever they come in the Black diaspora.

Where does Obsidian stand today in regards to Canada Council funding?

In the last round we got a 145 per cent increase, which is a big whopping sum of money for us. Funding is never guaranteed, but I think we have fulfilled what we said we were going to do. We pay our artists well above what the Equity and CTA rules say we should.

In the meantime, we’ve done capital costs and have a library of Black plays, and lighting instruments that we loan out. Last year I bought a keyboard for people who need to have access to a keyboard for working on musicals. We keep accumulating the physical things that will help Black artists at their craft.

After you step down, is there a pool of Black artists who are ready to lead the company in terms of experience and dedication to the cause?

I can think of one or two people that I would say are in a position to move the company ahead in a new, exciting, vibrant way. The directing chops to be able to build on our relationship down at the Shaw Festival, and across the country – that takes a particular set of skills.

It’s not up to me who takes over as the next artistic director. They have the meetings in another room and I’m not in them. I’ve articulated what I believe is core and essential, and the heart of Obsidian, and hope that those values are moved further on.

What comes after Obsidian for you?

I don’t really know. I know what my end date is [June 30, 2020]. I know that I have a job this summer that isn’t for Obsidian [directing Yazmina Reza’s Art at Soulpepper]. I don’t feel like I need to stop creating art. I’m hopefully going to keep creating.

Will you keep fighting?

The tip of the spear gets dull first. I always think there’s a time to fight. The reality is, there comes a time when nobody listens to you. And so I would like to find that balance where what I have to say is still listened to, and not just be some cranky old guy in the corner.

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