Guysborough’s Mulgrave Road Theatre is bringing “a story for all of Nova Scotia” on a tour of the province this May.
The theatre company debuted their production, The West Woods, last year. It ran for three shows and was incredibly popular with local residents, who eventually encouraged director Emmy Alcorn to take it out to a larger audience.
Not all of the theatre’s shows are able to leave Guysborough, but financial support from the government in honour of Canada’s 150th birthday is making it possible to take The West Woods across Nova Scotia.
The idea for the production crystallized when Alcorn saw a photograph of an African-Nova Scotian Guysborough County woman, Charlotte Desmond, standing next to a television host in New York.
“It raised a question in my mind – how did someone from rural Guysborough County in the 1950s end up in New York City with Ed Sullivan?”
Alcorn later found out that Desmond took care of Sullivan’s children, but she was still curious to learn more about racial dynamics in the working world during that time. She then partnered with playwright Tara Reddick to turn questions into answers.
“I asked her what she thought of the idea of writing a play that thought about all the women in Guysborough County – all the black women – who had to travel to Antigonish on a daily basis … to clean the homes of the white families,” Alcorn says. “It was Tara’s idea to set the play in 1968 because that was … sort of when the switch was happening for some of the women, just deciding to not be in service.”
Reddick says the period in which the play takes place was an exciting era for African-Nova Scotians.
“I chose that time basically because it was a vibrant time for black people,” says Reddick. “I feel like there was an energy in the world that even made its way to the West Woods, based on the community of Upper Big Tracadie, which is where my roots are from.”
Reddick based the characters loosely on her family.
“My grandmother worked in the homes of white women, my mother did – I’m the first not to,” she says, crediting her youth spent in the company of older adults for providing her with plenty of background knowledge she used writing the play.
Alcorn stresses the importance of the “inclusive approach” that the Canada 150 funding coordinators have taken in prioritizing diversity when choosing which projects get money.
That same way of thinking is also what gave the play its original success with many members of Guysborough County’s African-Nova Scotian community, who Alcorn says “typically did not come to our theatre.”
“Why would they? We weren’t telling their story.”
Reddick was happy to help.
“I was tired of playing these nondescript roles, of a nurse, a bystander, a customer, this and that, and I wanted to see myself reflected and I wanted to write a story that … people could relate to,” she says.
The plan is to traverse the province — although Alcorn could not confirm where exactly yet — visiting Halifax and rural Nova Scotia.
Alcorn also says that she wants the play to be financially accessible for anyone who wants to attend. “We’re planning on doing what we call ‘pay what you decide’ which is what we did in Guysborough and that was a huge success,” she says.
This method brought huge crowds out to the theatre last May, including a number of high school students, who Alcorn says “loved the story but they were fascinated by the theatrical elements — and had we been charging $25 a ticket, they might not have even got there once, let alone three times.”
Alcorn and Reddick are pleased that the production will be able to be viewed by a much larger audience than originally planned, bringing “the African-Nova Scotian rural experience” to the rest of the province.