Anti-Black Racism and the Theatre: A conversation with Philip Akin

Photo of Philip Akin.
Philip Akin, Canadian actor, director and former artistic director of Obsidian Theatre (Colin McConnell/Getty Images).

Renowned actor Philip Akin breaks down Canadian theatre’s inherent threads of racism and unpacks the past, present and future of performing arts.  

Presented by Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression, Obsidian Theatre Company’s Philip Akin led a Zoom discussion on Tuesday, Nov. 3, to examine anti-Black racism in Canadian theatres. 

Obsidian Theatre Company was born out of a need to bring Black voices, in all its dialects, to the limelight of Canadian performing arts. Since its start in 2000, Obsidian emerged as a means to modify Canada’s theatre profile, one that has historically been, and continues to be, predominantly white

Philip Akin, an award-winning Canadian actor, director and alumni of the Ryerson School of Performance, was one of Obsidian’s founding members and was the artistic director for 14 years. His acting credentials are extensive, ranging from playing Othello at the Stratford Festival, Norton Drake in War of the Worlds and Charlie DeSalvo in Highlander: The Series. 

Last week, Akin partnered with Ryerson’s Centre for Free Expression to unpack Anti-Black Racism and the Theatre, centring the manifestation of marginalization and power in the theatrical art. 

“For particularly white theatre artists, theatre was reflecting the culture, and so systemic racism in those days was mostly… systemic indifference,” said Akin in conversation with Luke Reece, a playwright and producer at Little Black Afro Theatre

The pair started the discussion by examining how society only recently began referring to Canadian theatre as a racist institution. 

In 2015, allegations of systemic racism, namely in Vancouver’s theatre scene, emerged by a group named REAL Canadian Theatre. Additionally, since the intensification of the Black Lives Matter protests in the middle and latter half of 2020, notable theatre organizations like the National Arts Centre in Ottawa and Stratford Festival released statements acknowledging their privilege as “storytelling organizations” and noting the means by which they uphold and perpetuate institutionalized racial inequity.

“We look at the stories that came out in the ‘70s and ‘80s and they were quote ‘Canadian stories’ but they did not encompass artists of colour,” said Akin. “Race was not part of the oxygen in which [white people] breathed. It was for Black people…that air has never changed.”

Throughout the event, Akin and Reece traced the history of overt and covert racism in Canadian performing arts, highlighting Shakespeare’s Othello in particular, which Akin stated has only recently become a “quintessential Black part.” 

“In my early years in theatre, Othello was still a play that was a white person’s part. Out of all the years, we now think of Othello as this Black play but it’s only been a Black part for 7.9 percent of the time,” says Akin. 

Philip Akin plays Othello at Stratford Festival, becoming the first Black Canadian to perform the title role (TORONTOSTAR/ David Hou).

Since the early 18th century, Othello was played by white actors who employed stage makeup to darken their skin and align with Shakespeare’s intended depiction of a sub-Saharan “Black Moor.” This practice permeated through the nineteenth century until the casting of Ira Aldridge in 1825, who became the first Black actor to perform the title role. Following racially-charged and adverse commentary about his performance from notable publications, Aldridge relinquished his role, and the part was once again dominated by white actors. It was not until 1930 that activist Paul Robeson, the second Black actor to play Othello, transformed the role into an archetypical Black part. 

However, Akin expressed that even when Othello is played by a Black protagonist and not a white actor in blackface, he is perpetually placed opposite a White, blue-eyed Desdemona. Akin explains that this creates a space for “strong systemic threads” of oppression to thrive.

“Have you not figured out yet that this is indeed threads of racism?” said Akin. “Doing this play as a Black man says that no matter how civilized you are, if you are driven hard enough, you return into a murdering barbarian.”

According to Annika Nekalson, a former assistant editor at The Atlantic, the replication of stereotypical, monolithic and inherently racist tropes continue to permeate the theatre industry today and is a byproduct of a legacy of minstresly and slavery.

In an article entitled, Blackface Was Never Harmless, Neklason enumerates the series of recurring characters and archetypes that continue to surface in the present day media. These include, clownish slave Jim Crow; the obsequious, maternal Mammy; the hypersexualized wench Lucy Long; the arrogant dandy Zip Coon; the lazy, childish Sambo. 

Even after Blackface mostly eradicated from venues and theatres by civil rights activists, Neklason comments that “it remained a part of the national culture, a feature of parties, Halloween costumes, comedy sketches, and fashion that’s lingered on into the 21st century.”

Even into the 20th century, “Blackface” was instated in theatre companies and entertainment to further subjugate and exclude Black people from participating in the performing arts (City of Toronto Archives via The Tyee). 

To Akin, theatre formed a space where he could present himself as “non-threatening” and he would consequently be safer from the prejudice and discrimination entrenched in society. However, he soon uncovered theatre’s shortcomings as a protective space for BIPOC.

“Most of the time, the attitude—spoken or unspoken—is that they think they’re doing you a favour. They think that we are a supplicant. They think we should just be happy… to be in your sacred white space.”

Members of Obsidian Theatre company including Philip Akin (second from the left) and Luck Reece (third from the left) (via GivingTuesday).

The event concluded with a callout for donations for an unprecedented funding program dedicated to the success of Black Canadian theatre artists—the Philip Akin Black Shoulders Legacy Award. The fund annually selected five Black artists via submissions, with each being awarded a $5,000 honorarium towards training and other opportunities to develop their artistic craft.

“The money we’re raising right now sits in an endowment fund with the Ontario Arts Foundation so that it can go on and live in perpetuity,” said Reece, the spearhead of the fund. “It exists to give Black artists that extra boost to learn, to train, to get the experience they need to have these careers where they’ll be able to work and live as an artist.”

You can learn more about the Obsidian Theatre Company’s history and productions here.