Play highlights black women in Canadian history

Nicky Lawrence left the Shaw Festival almost ten years ago under a storm cloud.

On the bright side: the experience gave rise to a one-woman show titled “ugly black womanfeaturing original songs by Lawrence about black women who have shaped Canadian history. The show opens March 19 at the Paradise Theater.

“I reported a co-worker for making a racist comment in the locker room. The week before I was offered to come back, and then after I reported it, all of a sudden my offer disappeared,” Lawrence told about his experience at Shaw.

“At that moment, I felt so helpless. I’m a parent, and I thought I had just lost a job…it was stable. I felt so small and gross and ugly and had no power because these three white women got together and decided my future,” Lawrence said.

“I remember coming home and crying and writing ‘ugly black woman’ and there were tears on the page. But I backed up and I said, ‘huh, well, what does that mean? Why do I feel this? Lawrence added.

When contacted by the Star, Shaw spokeswoman Ashley Belmer did not directly address Lawrence’s racism allegations or what happened to his comeback offer.

“While we don’t comment on personnel issues, Nicky worked for us under our normal two-show CAEA (Canadian Actors Association) contracts in 2012 and 2013 and completed both season contracts,” said Belmer. “Although she hasn’t returned to Shaw since then, that’s not unusual. Normally, 10-15 members of the ensemble change each year, depending on seasonal and production needs and casting choices.

Working at Shaw was one of the “greatest opportunities” of Lawrence’s career, she said, despite the fact that people she met in Niagara-on-the-Lake generally assumed she was a worker at one of the local wineries.

Lawrence grew up in Mississauga in a family that loved music. Her father is a DJ and her mother a writer and performer. Lawrence loved to sing as a child and even joined her mother on stage when she was 11 years old.

So after leaving Shaw, Lawrence decided to embark on a very personal project, channeling her negative experiences as a performer, including at Shaw, but also delving into the history of black women in Canada. The show, which includes a backup band, features eight songs composed and performed by Lawrence.

“I would put my child to bed and write until about 3 or 4 in the morning. Then I would get up, take him to school, rewrite and go to work. It took me some time for the whole puzzle. But after years of doing it in different iterations, I have the version that I know will be the one that will be successful,” she said, adding that it had already attracted interest from theater from across Canada.

“I started looking for heroes who looked like me. I opened a box of a plethora of women who have made great sacrifices for this country, who have changed the laws in this country and who are never talked about. We don’t get told about it at school,” Lawrence said.

These include women like Viola Desmond, a civil rights activist and businesswoman from Nova Scotia who challenged racial segregation at a movie theater in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia in the 1940s In 2018, Desmond became the face of Canada’s $10 bill.

Mary Ann Shadd was an ardent abolitionist and the first black woman to publish a newspaper in Canada, founding and editing The Provincial Freeman in 1853.

Chloe Cooley was enslaved in Canada in the late 18th century. Its forced sale led to the introduction of a law to abolish slavery in Upper Canada in 1793.

“I really want to emphasize that, yes, I’m a black woman and I’m proud to be a black woman and I’m proud to tell the stories of black women. But they are Canadian heroes — period. These are Canadian stories for God’s sake, they happened here,” Lawrence said.

“This show is bigger than me. I hope people who see ‘Ugly Black Woman’ understand that they’re included in it, no matter what they look like or where they’re from. These are stories of which you can be proud as a Canadian.