February 16, 2021
Every morning in Saint John, N.B., a feeling of creeping annoyance overtook Clyde Wray as he looked out the window of an Italian restaurant on Canterbury Street, drinking his coffee and writing poems on his laptop.
From the window, the playwright and poet could see portraits of eight famous Saint Johners on a brick wall across the street.
The portraits depicted well-known poets, artists and other personalities from the city.
Seven men and one woman, all white.
"I always wondered, didn't anybody else in Saint John, of any particular colour, or any Indigenous person, warrant a portrait?"
In summer, the poet and playwright would see tourists on trolleys pointing to the portraits. Visitors on tourist walks snapped photos.
And so Wray, who grew up in New York, made it his business to research Black Saint Johners who had done important work over the years in the city where he now lives.
"In my mind, you can't keep talking about diversity and not show it," Wray said.
He looked for ghosts of the past, people who shouldn't have been forgotten, and brought these characters back to life on stage in a play he wrote and directed called We Were Here.
With the help of PRUDE Inc., a non-profit organization that promotes cultural diversity, Wray found seven Black historical figures from Saint John who made a substantial impact: Edward Mitchell Bannister, Eldridge Eatman, Lena O'Ree, Constance Timberlake, Cornelius Sparrow, Abraham Beverley Walker and Georgina Whetsel.
He also chose to include one non-New Brunswicker, Josiah Henson, an escaped slave from the U.S. who reached Upper Canada and was an inspiration for Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
We Were Here, which will be livestreamed by the Saint John Theatre Company Feb. 25-27, portrays the lives of these eight characters in 10-minute vignettes.
An escape from slavery
Cornelius Sparrow, one of the eight characters in We Were Here, was a runaway slave born in 1826 in Virginia.
Sparrow arrived in Saint John in 1851 after escaping slave catchers in the U.S. Within a few years, he was a highly regarded business owner.
He opened a barbershop, then Victoria's Dining Saloon, the largest saloon in the city.
"By far, the nicest in Saint John," a local newspaper said of the saloon. "It has few rivals in Canada."
Neil Clements, a Saint John lawyer, plays Sparrow in We Were Here.
"It would've taken, I think, a really, really motivated individual to come out of slavery and to be able to build a business and for us to be talking about it 200 years later," Clements said.
He was the first student of colour to enrol in what was then the Saint John Law School and became the first native-born Black lawyer in Canada.
Throughout his life, Walker was judged by the colour of his skin.
Because of his race, he struggled to build a law practice and for a while earned an income as a court stenographer.
"His colleagues would actually ridicule him in open court when he was there working as a stenographer," said Timothy Christie, an ethics professor in Saint John who plays Walker.
Wray said he thought it would be too easy for Clements to perform as Walker since they'd both gone into law. So he asked Christie to do it.
Walker was recommended for the designation of Queen's Counsel, but white lawyers who'd received the same honour vowed to renounce it.
Walker, who died in 1909, was appointed to the Order of New Brunswick in 2019. Christie said he never came across Walker's name in his studies.
"We don't have one history book, when I went to school, or where my nieces and nephews are going to school now, that talks about him," Christie said.
"There is no excuse that the New Brunswick education curriculum doesn't include a huge section on Abraham Beverley Walker."
Lying down in protest
Constance Timberlake, another character Wray explored, was born in Saint John in 1930 and moved to the United States to attend university and join the civil rights movement.
In 1963, a week before Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.'s march on Washington, Timberlake and 15 other activists bought tickets to the Kansas City Fairyland amusement park.
They laid on the ground to protest the fact that Black people weren't routinely allowed in.
Police arrested the protesters, took them to jail and charged them with disturbing the peace.
Nigerian-born Olive Ozoemena, who will play Timberlake, said she had never heard of the activist.
"Things that they went through at the time may not be the things that a lot of Black people are going through today," said Ozoemena, who works at YMCA Newcomer Connections in Saint John.
"But it just tells me that resilience and courage and standing, you know, for what you believe is right is the way to go."
FOR MORE | One-on-one interviews with the actors and their reflections on the historical characters they play. With videos.
- A 21st-century poet connects with a 19th-century painter Edward Mitchell Bannister
- On playing Eldridge Eatman, Saint John's everyman superman
- Playing Josiah Henson inspires this actor to do better
- Becoming Lena O'Ree: A young actor's reflection
- Olive Ozoemena meets Constance Timberlake
- Cornelius Sparrow: A runaway slave and Saint John entrepreneur
- Abraham Beverley Walker: A lawyer never to receive justice
- 'Strong, brave, resilient': Reflections on Ice Lady Georgina Whetsel
Through the front door
Joanna Daramola, a Saint John High School student originally from Nigeria who volunteers at the Saint John Theatre Company, plays the part of 17-year-old Lena O’Ree.
Daramola, who is softspoken and shies away from attention, sees a lot of herself in O'Ree.
"She is also ambitious, even though she was scared to do some things, she did them anyway," Daramola said.
In the 1950s, O'Ree worked as a housekeeper at the Admiral Beatty Hotel in Saint John.
Black people, even celebrities such as Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald, had to use the back door of the hotel.
O'Ree decided to take a stand and walked through the front door.
"I think she knew that there might be a chance that she would be fired from her job," Daramola said.
"But I think she knew that she had to change things. She had to change the way things were during her time, so she went against the grain, and she just walked through the front door.”
Moving to New Brunswick was a culture shock for Daramola. She said she wasn't used to being stared at in stores. That didn't happen in Kenya, where she lived for 10 years.
"It's the first time that I'm embracing my culture and my roots maybe since I moved here," said Daramola.
"I think it's kind of empowering to know that there are Black people who have done really cool things in Saint John, and I think it's cool that we're helping other people know that."
Actors with day jobs
During the Saint John Black Lives Matter march in June, more than 1,000 people took to the streets to support the movement.
Wray was there. As he walked and heard speeches by Black Saint Johners, he was headhunting actors.
"We don't have a significant amount of people of colour, actors and performers here in Saint John," Wray said.
Most of the people he found for the roles have full-time jobs outside the theatre, and a couple of them are still in school.
To learn their lines, some players have been reciting them to their kids while they cook, and others to themselves as they drive home from work.
"Oh, we rehearse diligently, regularly," Wray said. "I'm sort of putting them through their paces. This is not an easy task, and they're working extraordinarily hard to do it."
'A story of unsung heroes'
For the past few months, the actors have met at the Saint John Theatre Company's home on Princess Street at least once a week to rehearse and take constructive criticism from their director.
With face masks on, they've sat on chairs lined up in front of the small stage and kept their distance from each other as they waited their turn.
One by one, the actors took the stage and recited their monologues while Wray looked on from a chair in the corner.
"It strikes me as a story of unsung heroes, and interestingly, it makes me feel like I am not alone," said Tallas Munro, a University of Victoria student who is playing Edward Mitchell Bannister, a painter from Saint Andrews.
Munro said he did not know who these historical figures were until all of the actors started rehearsing their monologues together.
Actress Tanya McPherson didn't either. She plays Georgina Whetsel, a Saint John woman who had a million-dollar ice business in the late 1800s. She was believed to be one of the richest Black women in North America in her day.
"Sometimes, we look around, and we think, well, where are we in terms of being represented?" said McPherson.
"In seeing this show, I think we will feel differently. And these are not the only characters or the only people. There's other people that were very prominent then. It's just really doing the research to find out who they are."
A challenging work of art
Wray said that he, along with the actors, feels the weight of responsibility to deliver an accurate portrayal of these characters.
Descendants of two of the eight figures in We Were Here are still living in Saint John.
"If they come to the show, I want them to at least be able to say, 'Yes, that was my mother or my aunt,'" said Wray.
"There's that responsibility. That's why, for me, it may be the most important work I have ever done."
For more on these characters:
- Edward Mitchell Bannister
- Eldridge Eatman
- Josiah Henson
- Lena O'Ree
- Constance Timberlake
- Cornelius Sparrow
- Abraham Beverley Walker
- Georgina Whetsel
Tickets for performances of We Were Here, streaming Feb. 25-27 at 7:30 p.m., are on sale now on the Saint John Theatre Company website.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.