AFRICANADIAN PLAYWRIGHTS FESTIVAL a celebration of African-Canadian playwrights and their works. Presented by CanStage in association with the UC Drama Program and Playwrights Guild of Canada. CanStage (26 Berkeley), Harbourfront Centre (235 Queens Quay West), Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson) and University College (79 and 79A St. George). August 22-27. Pwyc-$15, day pass $25, festival pass $100. 416-368-3110. www.africanadian.com Rating: NNNNN
Edwige Jean-Pierre went through years of theatre training in Vancouver without reading a script by an African-Canadian playwright.
"The only African writer I knew of was Athol Fugard, and he's white," recalls the playwright. "I remember returning home to Ottawa after school and Googling black theatre in Canada. That's how I discovered playwright Djanet Sears, artistic director of the AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival."
The information was a revelation for Jean-Pierre, a budding writer who suddenly had a role model.
"I read Djanet's play Harlem Duet and thought, "Wow, I guess I can write about anything I want, not only about being a black woman.'
"Djanet's a great playwright, not just a great black female Canadian playwright."
Now Jean-Pierre, who's performed her works in Rhubarb! and Hysteria, gets to share the stage with her hero Sears as part of the fourth tri-annual AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival. The celebration combines readings, performances and academic discussions.
Jean-Pierre's Even Darkness Is Made Of Light, a darkly comic monologue about a young woman bent on suicide, is part of the fest's reading series August 24. The six-day event includes readings of works by playwrights trey anthony, Gerry Atwell, ahdri zhina mandiela, Marcia Johnson, Dian Marie Bridge and George Elliott Clarke.
Want to see a fuller production? The festival offers staged workshop versions of George Boyd's Wade In The Water, Andrew Moodie's The Language Of The Heart, Satori Shakoor's Tales From The Clit, Carol Anderson's Swan Song Of Maria and other scripts.
Of special interest is an adaptation of Austin Clarke's Giller-winning novel The Polished Hoe, adapted by Colin Taylor and Alison Sealy-Smith, which will be part of Obsidian Theatre's season next year.
"The festival draws people from across Canada, the U.S. and the UK," adds Jean-Pierre, who recently moved to Toronto. "This year's theme is Honouring the Word, the importance of acknowledging those who have planted the seed that we younger artists are now able to harvest.
"Importantly, both those who came before us and we ourselves are diverse; no one shares exactly the same experience."
The bilingual Jean-Pierre hopes that the next festival will feature more francophone writers; this year's sole French contributor, she notes, is Djennie Laguerre.
Another aspect of diversity comes in the writing of Joseph Jomo Pierre, who made a strong debut last year with Born Ready and Pusha Man in the Theatre Passe Muraille/Obsidian Stage Stage3 series and just impressed audiences with the SummerWorks show Hip-Hop (Who Stole The Soul?). His young, urban male voice is an important part of the cultural mix.
"I'd heard about the AfriCanadian Playwrights Festival but felt outside the system," says the articulate artist, whose acting is as powerful as his gangsta-influenced writing. "Alison and Philip Akin at Obsidian gave me a chance to have my say."
Pierre, who studied at Claude Watson High School and York, feels that he's never made a distinction between being an actor and a writer.
"Theatre is a powerful and immediate experience for me," he explains. "I didn't know what I was seeing when I first attended a stage play, but I had an electric connection with what was happening. It's powerful to have people so close you can touch them, telling a story that can be raw, unnerving, uplifting."
Pierre reads as part of the opening day's (August 22) Salon Lunchtime series, along with Michael Miller and Mercedes Baines. Among the more than 30 other playwrights offering selections during the festival are Devon Haughton, Donna Michelle St. Bernard, Alicia Payne, Gail Nyoka, Donald Carr, Rebecca Fisseha and Lillian Allen.
"If I can help a younger writer not feel like an outsider, then I've got to contribute to a festival like this. Most of the upcoming black playwrights are women, and I think it's important that there be a male voice, too.
"Personally," Pierre says with a send-up smile, "I've always viewed the established writers as being from a special club. If they leave the key in the door, even by accident, I'm going into that club.
"I may not always know why I'm being asked to the table, but I'm gonna take some scraps back home."