CONSECRATED GROUND by George Boyd, directed by David R. Collins, with Kevin Hanchard, Nigel Shawn Williams, Shakura S'Aida, Troy Adams, Lili Francks, Abena Malika and Norman C. Owen. Presented by Obsidian and Factory at Factory (125 Bathurst). Previews begin tonight (Thursday, May 6), opens Wednesday (May 12) and runs to May 30, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2 pm. $25-$33.50, Sunday pwyc, previews $12. 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
It was the sound of a bulldozer that brought home to David R. Collins the importance of his latest project. Collins is directing the Toronto premiere of George Boyd's Consecrated Ground, nominated for the Governor General's Award in 2000. The play tells the too-little-known tale of Africville, a black community in Halifax that was razed in 1965 to make way for a park. The community, settled by refugees of the War of 1812, predated Canada itself.
"I came upon an archival CBC tape of a reporter interviewing a family in their living room," he recalls. "Their words are drowned out by a bulldozer in the background, as the neighbourhood is being torn down around them.
"Home is where you can be yourself. These people were losing that basic human right."
Consecrated Ground's characters are fictional, though their stories accurately describe the fate of dozens of families relocated to other parts of Halifax because of the outrageous decision of the city council.
At the play's centre are married couple Clarice and Willem, she from a long line of Africville residents and he a newcomer from Annapolis Royal.
When the city installs a dump and abattoir next door, rats and other problems threaten the community. Clarice won't abandon her home, while Willem wants to move to public housing offered to the residents.
"Ironically, they're both right," says Collins, a Dora-nominated actor whose directing credits include This Life and Heaven. "That's why the fighting between them is so compelling. She's absolutely sure of the importance of holding onto the ancestral home; he's right in recognizing that they must move on to survive and to give their infant child a better life."
Even Tom Clancy, the young white man who offers the Africville residents a buyout for their homes, isn't an evil Simon Legree.
"What's compelling about Clancy is his honesty. Fresh out of university with a degree in sociology, he wants to save the world. In his naíveté and desire to help people, he doesn't realize what he's doing to the community."
There was no black Canadian theatre when Collins began his theatre career in the 70s. Recently, this founding member of Obsidian Theatre has performed in several African-Canadian works, including Djanet Sears's The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search Of God and Michael Miller's El Paso.
"Most contemporary black theatre deals with themes of ancestors, family, home and our place in the world. As a piece of writing, Consecrated Ground ranks with Greek and Shakespearean tragedy with its epic, heroic struggle against impossible odds.
"It's a story about survival. The town might have gone down, but the fact that we're doing the play means that Africville is alive."