A Conversation with Djanet Sears
Less than fifty years ago, few universities and colleges offered courses on black history. Few professors walking campuses were black. Even fewer were women. In arts departments—as in other departments—the literature prescribed on course syllabi didn’t speak to the African experience. Black people were rarely on TV. When black people were visible in the arts, their characters were typically written by white people. In theatre companies across Canada and the United States, black actors got typecast into stereotypical roles, playing slaves and drug dealers, and in Canada, a black women had never published a play.
This all changed because of a woman named Djanet Sears—though she’s far too modest to admit it. The fifty-one-year old actor, director, and playwright will attribute her achievements in the dramatic arts to her educators and peers, never claiming her successes in the theatrical arts as her own. Despite her humility, there’s no doubt that Sears has made her mark in the world of cinema and theatre, clearing a path for black female artists to follow.
Born as “Janet” in England in 1959 to a Guyanese father and a Jamaican mother, Sears added the “D” to her birth name after visiting a small town in Africa by that name. Since her immigration to Canada forty years ago, Sears has wasted no time bringing her Caribbean roots to the stage, rewriting gendered stereotypes and reimagining racial roles.
Her plays include Harlem Duet Afrika Solo, Who Killed Kate Ross, Double Trouble, and most recently in 2000,The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God, which was shortlisted for a 2004 Trillium Book Award. Her play Harlem Duet received multiple Dora Awards, and she’s been an international artist-in-residence in New York. In 1998, she recieved the Floyd S. Chalmers Canadian Play Award, and in 2004, the Stratford Festival’s Timothy Findley Award. She’s also been recognized with the Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award, the Harry Jerome Award for Excellence in the Cultural Industries, and a Phenomenal Woman of the Arts Award. She’s the editor of Testifyin, volumes one and two, the first collections of contemporary African Canadian drama. In 1998, Sears was recognized with the highest honor for dramatic writing: the Governor General’s Literary Award.
Currently, Sears runs the AfriCanadian Playwrights’ Festival, and she’s a founding member of the Obsidian Theatre Company, a company focused on featuring works by playwrights of African descent. She’s also an adjunct professor at the University of Toronto, where she teaches playwriting courses and inspires a new generation of young writers. In honor of Black History Month, WOMAN.ca sought out Mrs.Sears to sit down and chat about her life, her views on representation in the arts, and her achievements in the world of theatre.
WOMAN: You were born in England, and then moved to Saskatoon correct? What was the reason for the move?
DS: Yes, I was born in London and moved to Saskatchewan with my parents. I think my father foresaw a kind of economic decline in England, but much more than that, he saw in his peers and their children a kind of difficulty for black kids to move beyond some very rigid glass ceilings in England. The class system was still very alive in England, and so the kind of immigrant aspirations that parents might have for their children are quite limited in England, and I think he and my mother had bigger dreams.
WOMAN: What brought you to Toronto?
DS: Again, I moved with my parents. Two years after we lived in Saskatoon, we all moved east. I think there was a sense of cultural isolation. I was sixteen when I moved to the small town of Oakville, Ontario. We moved on Third Line between Rebecca and Bridge, and I attended Blakelock High School.
WOMAN: Where did you study after high school?
DS: After Blakelock , I studied theatre at York University, and I focused on acting. It was there that my interest in theatre was nurtured.
I remember when I first realized I wanted to act. We were living in England at the time, and I remember playing outside when I was very small—I must have been seven— and one of our neighbors called us inside, shouting “There’s black people on TV! There’s black people on TV!” Of course, at the time, you didn’t see very many black people on television. We all rushed inside to see, and it was Harry Belafonte and Dorothy Dandridge in Carmen Jones, which is a contemporary musical revisioning of the Opera.
I remember seeing this and just being blown away! I thought, “I wanted to do that!” Until I was about nineteen or twenty, I thought it was only acting that I was passionate about, but then I started directing, and I thought, maybe I want to direct as well.
It was only in my last year at York that I took a few writing courses with some really inspiring professors, and I thought “I have to do this!”
One professor in particular really encouraged my artistic growth, and his name was
Jeff Henry. Henry was at the time one of the only black professors teaching in the drama department. He ran a theatre company and encouraged students to volunteer, and I took every opportunity to do so.
In pursuing acting when I finished school in the eighties, the kind of roles I’d get auditions for were limiting: they’d either cast me as a slave, a runaway slave, a prostitute, a drug addict, or drug addict’s girlfriend.
WOMAN: The limited types of roles for black people is interesting. I was reading an interview you gave with Matt Bunton, and you said that you saw the play Othello at a young age, and you weren’t offended, but you absorbed this image of black masculinity that was presented to you, and it impacted your work, Harlem Duet. I was wondering to what extent your playwriting is a type of re-imagining the roles possible for black masculinity and femininity?
DS: I think it has a lot to do with it. Sometime admitting that leaves me open to realizing how reactionary I am, as it makes it seem that I’m just reacting to what I’ve been fed. But it’s true that a lot of my own self-discovery is about identifying or deconstructing the internalized sexism and racism that are already inside of me and are part of a systemic part of society.
WOMAN: I was thinking about the key words surrounding you and the subjectivity you occupy as an author, and the four that came to mind were: black, artist, female, and Canadian. I was thinking about how I could pull these aspects apart and talk about them separately, but I realized that the more you try and pull these things apart, the more you realize how inextricable they are.
DS: You’re absolutely correct. It’s interesting, even if you take the two that are seemingly easiest to separate—the woman and the artist—you’ll find you can’t separate them. Being an artist, I’m following things that are inside me, that inspire me, that move me, and yet, I’ve always been a woman, I’ve always been black—I’ve been both of them at the same time, so you’re absolutely right—these things can’t be pulled apart.
WOMAN: Putting you into a Canadian context, I recall an interview in which you said that there’s a possibility in Canada, and I was interested to know what opportunities you feel Canada presents?
Canada allows for things like my anthology, Testifyin: It was published in 2000; it’s the first anthology of Black plays in Canadian history. Now, on the one hand, that fact is really terrible, but on the other hand, it’s good that it happened! It’s not unlike—in a very reductionist kind of way— the character Canada I wrote in a play called Harlem Duet: The character Canada is very flawed, but with him, there’s a possibility.
The first play I published, Africa Solo, was the first play published in Canada with a black woman as the author. I’m not the first black playwright, but I’m the first black women playwright to get published. So there are opportunities, openings. I don’t know how much of these opportunities came to me and how much I sought; half of it was luck and half was something else.
I was able to seize these opportunities because I was a part of very vocal women’s communities in the eighties—women’s organizations, women’s presses, etc. I got involved with Knightwood theatre at the time, which is the oldest feminist theatre in the country. My first play, Africa Solo,
Knightwood was the place where I first professionally presented an excerpt from my first play, Africa Solo. Knight Wood was a place where women could present new material, and audiences were open to receiving it.
My friend Kate Lushington, who also went to York, was the artistic director of an extracurricular organization called Cabaret. My first year at York, she cast me in my first play, and by the time I was in my fourth year, I was artistic director of Cabaret! It was a very interesting personal evolution. It’s about following in the paths of other women, and having other women inspire me, and present opportunities and openings to me.
I think that while there are lots of boundaries and bridges surrounding race and gender in Canada, these same places also provide places of connection.
WOMAN: There’s an element in Adventures that speaks to the erasure of black
people’s participation in the war of 1812. I found this interesting because at once, there’s this erasure of history in the renaming of Negro Creek, but there’s also a denial of that same history, and this really comes through in the symbol of the jacket.
DS: Yes, and I hope that it doesn’t get into a polemic. I hope it’s not read as black people against white people, as it’s more like this: people fight for what’s important to them and pass it onto like-minded.
There’s twenty-five people in the play, which is a rather large cast, but there are also other in the cast: white people, aboriginal people, aboriginal mixed people. In many ways, there are other people coming in and out of that story, and that’s the way Canada is in a way.
WOMAN: Who would you cite as a major influence or inspiration over your work?
Lorraine Hansberry. When I was auditioning for York, one of my teachers suggested a monologue from A Raisin in the Sun by Hansberry. The play is about a poor family on the south side of Chicago. The father had died and the family was trying to move into a middle-class white neighborhood, and they’re not wanted. It’s based on a true story. It happened to Hansberry’s parents. Her father challenged the community who didn’t want them, taking the issue to the Supreme Court. He fought and he won.
I read this play, and although I was raised in Oakville Ontario, one of the middle-class bastions of Canada, yet somehow, this text spoke to me in ways I’d never experienced before. It wasn’t my life, but there was something about the character’s experience was an experience I’d recognized, that I was familiar with.
I use this audition piece, and got into York, and read more about Hansberry. In 1959, the year of my birth, A Raisin in the Sun went to Broadway. She was the first black person to have her play on Broadway.
WOMAN: Do you have any advice for women aspiring in the arts? I mean, it’s hard enough to get somewhere as a women, it’s even more difficult as a black women, and it’s even more difficult for people trying to work in the arts these days. You seem to have all of these things working against you, yet somehow, you’ve emerged with three successful plays and a Governor General’s Award. First of all, how does that recognition feel, and what advice would you pass on to young female actresses and writers?
DS: Being recognized feels good. Some of those awards come with money, and that feels good, but here’s the thing: recognition is nice, but it doesn’t improve your art. That’s the constant struggle as an artist.
If I was going to give advice to aspiring artists, I’d say two things: First, if you have a calling for the arts in any way, don’t ignore it. Honor that calling within you. You can honor your calling by taking community classes and getting involved. Just do it. It’s my version of the Nike mantra, but I’m not talking about Nike the shoe, I’m talking about Nike the goddess. Just do it.
Second, I’d say hone your craft. Go to workshops, get involved, and keep on practicing. Meet people who are doing the same thing and exchange information. Just keep with it.
Andrew Craig, a musician and radio show host says “in a way, the race isn’t for the speedy, it’s for those who last.” A lot of people have talent, they just can’t last. They can’t stay. As a writer, the hardest thing to do is to stay when you don’t want to face how hard it is. Keep doing it. By doing it, you keep honing your craft, you keep producing more work and when opportunities present themselves, you’re ready.
WOMAN: Thank you so much for your time!