Minis Stairs didn’t know how much she had in common with Viola Desmond, until she was given the chance to play her in a new musical.
“I thought I knew a lot about Viola, but she really is so much more than what happened to her at that theatre,” said Stairs, the star of Viola: An Original Musical.
Like Desmond, Stairs works in the beauty industry in the Halifax Regional Municipality. She sells natural hair care products for women and men of colour. Stairs said she didn’t understand how involved Desmond was in the beauty industry until she started rehearsals.
“I didn’t realize how much I connected with her on things, like having a passion for being an entrepreneur and a business woman,” Stairs said. “That really helped me understand who she really was.”
Stairs first got involved with the musical after her sister-in-law Charity Stairs — who co-wrote some of the music for the show — recommended her for the role.
“I didn’t really have to audition,” she said. “(The director) trusted Charity’s judgment, so I went in, sang, and just started into rehearsals from there.”
The musical, written by local playwright Tara Taylor, tells the story of two sisters who have to write a report for school on Desmond, the black civil rights icon who refused to give up her seat in the whites-only section of the Roseland Theatre in 1946. Taylor’s production weaves together the two stories: Desmond’s fight for civil rights and the sisters learning about the impact she’s made.
The musical, which opens — and closes — Thursday night at Citadel High’s Spatz Theatre, is part of the North End Business Association’s Celebrate Viola series. The series is hosted by the Viola Desmond Committee, which put together a number of events to celebrate Desmond’s appearance on Canada’s new $10 bill.
Stairs said she is excited to share what she’s learnt while rehearsing her part.
“I didn’t realize how big an honour it was to be a part of this until I went to the bill release event on Monday,” she said. “I wasn’t going to do it at first because I thought all of this was out of my wheelhouse, but I’m really grateful. It feels like I get to be a part of history.”
Celebrate Viola kicked off Wednesday night with a roundtable discussion called Civil Rights: Then and Now. The series ends Sunday with an Ecumenical Service honouring Viola Desmond at Saint George’s Round Church in Halifax.
‘A way to celebrate’
Marika Parris, event co-ordinator for the North End Business Association, said Celebrate Viola has been a great way to unify the community.
“We thought because she was born, she lived and she worked in the north end of Halifax, we wanted to give the community and organizations in the north end a way to celebrate,” she said.