Black History in Lucan
There’s a fascinating story rooted in Lucan, but it seems that most of us in southwestern Ontario don’t know much about it. A new play on stage in Blyth, The Wilberforce Hotel, tells some of that tale, but not enough. It whetted my appetite and I came right home to google more about it.
Here’s what I learned: In 1829, former black slaves, now free, came to the area we know as Lucan to establish a colony. In 1831, the settlement was named “Wilberforce,” in honor of William Wilberforce, the prominent British abolitionist who had led the fight for the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act that ended slavery in most of the British Empire. By 1832, the settlers had crops in the ground and log homes. They built three sawmills, a gristmill, and some general stores. There were three schools established in Wilberforce, and the quality of education was so good that students were attracted from the local white population. Eventually, the colony dissolved: Most of the settlers were from cities in the Northern U.S., and weren’t able to cope with the difficult life clearing land and farming. By 1840, Irish immigrants were moving into the area, and the last of the black settlers left.
This background is required if someone is to appreciate this play. The play offers us the life of one settler, Austin Steward, who was a leader in the community. Regrettably, not enough context is given; in fact, we are not even told that Wilberforce is now Lucan, and all this history occurred just north of London, Ontario.
When a new play is written, the playwright usually contacts an interested director and then they do what is called “workshopping” the play. A group of actors gather round a table and read the script, while the author and director make notes. The play is then edited, altered, added to, or just generally re-written. I don’t know if this is the case, but unfortunately, I feel that there just wasn’t sufficient workshopping done with The Wilberforce Hotel.
The story begins with white travelling minstrels (Greg Gale and Eli Ham) presenting a black-face comedy show at the Fair in London, Ontario. They are run out of town, and end up at the Wilberforce settlement, staying at the inn, which is really Austin Steward’s (Marcel Stewart) home. Here we also meet Austin’s wife Milly (Sophia Walker), and another settler William Smith (Peter Bailey). Bailey also plays Israel Lewis, who travels to England to fundraise. Eli Ham also plays a slave owner, but the program doesn’t tell us that, which was confusing at first.
Unfortunately, the plot jumps around too much. Much of the story is revealed in flashbacks, but it’s not always clear if it is a flashback or if the story is advancing.
At one point I wondered if Austin has post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), resulting from his slave days. Are all these flashbacks just in his mind? Is Milly dead or alive, after she leaves to go back to the United States? Throughout the show, I assumed she died in the dangerous crossing of Lake Erie, and therefore it’s her ghost wandering around. Later we learn that she has made the trip safely. So the audience is left questioning whether Milly is a flashback or Austin’s hallucination.
There are some difficulties with the language. The unfamiliar twists and turns of the 19th century verbiage create confusion. There are also some long monologues: Was that a speech Israel made in England, or a letter he sent back? The audience is never sure. The minstrels’ fake southern accents can be difficult to follow at times.
Despite these problems, the actors are excellent, doing their best with a difficult script. The show is well cast
It’s a fascinating story and one that should be told. The plot on its own is interesting enough. The flashbacks aren’t necessary for suspense or story development. My suggestion would be that the playwright watch this production several times, talk to the cast and audience, then sit down and do a straightforward rewrite.
The Wilberforce Hotel continues at the Blyth Festival in repertoire until August 8. Call 519-523-9300 / 1-877-862-5984 or go to www.blythfestival.com for tickets.
Photo: Sophia Walker, Eli Ham, Marcel Stewart, Greg Gale. Photo by Terry Manzo.
The Wilberforce Hotel
By Sean Dixon
Directed by Philip Akin
Performed by Peter Bailey, Greg Gale, Eli Ham, Marcel Stewart, Sophia Walker.
Blyth Festival Theatre, Blyth
July 1 to August 8, 2015
Reviewed by Mary Alderson