This season, Neptune Theatre has taken on a classic fairytale, but adding a twist or two along the way.
Cinderella has been turned into a pantomime in order to redefine what people think of the classic story. A pantomime is a spin on a popular story that introduces humour, music and audience interaction.
One of the ways it was redefined was through casting Samantha Walkes — a black woman — as Cinderella.
The pantomime, said Walkes, is the perfect way to modernize a story like Cinderella.
“We should always be finding ways to bridge the gap, always. This is definitely a commentary,” she said about the idea that certain roles are for certain races. “As soon as (Jeremy Webb) put my face on I was like, ‘this is 2018.’ This is where we are, this is now, this is happening.”
She feels that it was necessary for someone to be a role model for marginalized community members.
“There are children that need to see this and say, ‘no, I’m not what everybody else says I am,’” said Walkes. “And that is a huge thing because we are told certain things by society, but also the prejudice, the racism, all the things people still do.”
When Walkes received the call about the role, she told her manager to wait because she wasn’t sure if Webb remembered what she looked like. But he did.
“We’re honoured to have Samantha playing the lead role. From the beginning, she’s been passionate about redefining the character in a new way that appeals to the broader community,” said Webb in a media release.
In the show, Cinderella is portrayed as an intelligent woman who tells herself she doesn’t need a man to make her complete. Walkes worked with Webb to redefine the character.
“What is brilliant about it is that it’s also a black woman,” said Walkes, adding she wanted to show an empowered Cinderella, so young girls attending the show would feel that way too.
Becoming the character wasn’t an easy process. Walkes said, as a black woman, there was an emotional aspect to stepping into the dress for the first time.
“I had no idea what to expect. But I also didn’t know how I’d be as a person, as Samantha Walkes, stepping into this role,” she said.
Walkes felt nervous and anxious about the role but decided to take it day by day.
This isn’t the first time Walkes has pushed boundaries in castings.
She became interested in theatre in high school, after taking her first drama class. After graduation, she had “the big moment” auditioning for the role of Maria in The Sound of Music for Mirvish Theatre Toronto. It was something she did on a dare, during a Canada-wide search, but at 19, without any formal training, she made the top 20. She was the only black woman to do so.
“It freed me from the idea that I needed to be, or look like, or sound like what you would call the elite,” she said.
For Walkes, being an actress is more than a profession. She tries to have an impact on audiences.
“We are doctors of our soul,” she said. “So the bravery and the courage it takes to look really deep and know ourselves so well, so that we can portray every story with the utmost honesty, truth and genuine feeling takes work on ourselves to understand these stories, these people who have told them to us, to play.”
Walkes calls acting a work on oneself. Noting it has taken blood, sweat and tears, in order to become each character she portrays.
Being part of Cinderella has given Walkes hope and energy for the future.
“It’s given me so much life to know children are coming of different minorities and seeing themselves,” she said.
Even though she got the Cinderella role and was rehearsing with the cast, the fact finally hit her right before the show opened, during the Parade of Lights last month. Children were excited to see her, “freaking out, completely losing their minds.”
“In that moment I realized they were seeing the magic and they were seeing me too,” she said. “So much of my life has been not being seen, pushed aside, nothing I do is enough, because of the colour of my skin and I was not expecting that they would see me and the magic of Cinderella, in one. I cried.”
The play runs from Nov. 27 to Jan. 13 on the Fountain Hall stage.