Congress 2021 blog edition
Playwright, Canadian television broadcaster, and social activist Rita Deverell, from Mount Saint Vincent University, takes her audience through an exploration and reflection of her award-winning play “Who you Callin’ Black Eh?” Deverell writes a narrative that dives deep into the nuances of racial identity and the politics of claiming membership to a racial community.
Deverell begins her talk with a discussion of her lived experience and prolific career in broadcasting by starting with her birth in 1945 Houston, Texas. Deverell explains: “And for the record, I have been Black and female ever since then. Which you can quickly do the math is 75 years. This has never been, in fact, a source of question for me. I am Black, and female. There you have it.” This powerful declaration sets the tone for a lively digital showing of “Who you Callin’ Black Eh?”
The initial scene of the play strikes a reflective chord. A white mother and Black father sit on a park bench and engage in a heated argument over how to present and maintain their six-year-old daughter’s hair. The white mother insists on engaging in straightening practices, noting “I want her to look like beautiful Viola Desmond, not like Aunt Jemima.” The father poignantly responds: “I will not help to burn my child’s hair. Then teach her to hate every hair on her head, her skin, herself. I’m not that crazy.” The child overhears this discussion and internalizes the polarizing standards of Black femininity.
Deverell, the omnipotent narrator, reflects on reactions and perspectives brought forward from the audience. In one riveting scene, the young girl, now a student in an Atlantic Canadian High School, experiences racism in an encounter with a fellow white student involving a pair of boots. Deverell explains: “members of our audience questioned whether this scene is real. We made up the sparkly boots, they are not real. We did not make up the race riots, they happened, and they happened someplace in Atlantic Canada.” Deverell’s commentary reminds us that her scenes of fiction are indeed rooted in history.
One of the most compelling aspects of Deverell’s presentation was her showcase of adaptability in the midst of a global pandemic. Deverell explains that plans for live performances of “Who you Callin’ Black Eh?” were suddenly halted in the face of national gathering restrictions. Rather than shut down, Deverell began to innovatively adapt the performance to a digital medium. The play we witnessed over Zoom was a collection of scenes pieced together through editing, and actors performing over Zoom in isolation. The result was a novel experience of social justice-based art in the digital realm.
Rita Deverell is a social activist and Canadian television broadcaster, and one of the founders of the Canadian television channel Vision TV. She served as News Director for the Aboriginal Peoples Television Network from 2002 to 2005. Deverell is now Holder of Nancy's Chair in Women's Studies at Mount Saint Vincent University.