Angélique skewers Canada’s often denied history of slavery
By Stephen Weir.
It took twenty years but as the spring stage season draws to a close, the most important Black History play just hit the boards, not with a thud but an explosion.
Angélique is the true story of a young domestic slave, who was blamed for setting fire to Montreal and was tortured and hanged for her troubles. The 285-year old saga is not a state secret. However, the fact that there was slavery in Lower Canada (now the province of Quebec), and at least one black woman who fought back is not a well-known fact.
Angélique, a classic Canadian play written by the late Lorena Gale, is based on the transcripts of the trial in 1724 of Angelique. The current remount produced by Factory and Obsidian Theatre (mounted initially by the Quebec based Black Theatre Workshop) draws a line from this relatively unknown event to the province’s contemporary struggles with racism.
Montreal actress Jenny Brizard, now based in Toronto, is diminutive in size but powerful in her portrayal of the slave girl. She arrives haphazardly on the intricate two-story set wearing a white cotton slave outfit. She is about to be sold for the third or fourth time in her young life and she prays that it will be different this time.
It isn’t. The rich owner of the iron works buys her on a whim to cheer his distressed wife, in mourning over the recent death of their child. Soon the master of the house is raping the slave on a nightly basis, resulting in several stillborn births and strife in the household. The mistress, unhappy with her husband’s dalliances, takes to whipping Angelique and eventually decides to sell her and have her shipped to the Caribbean.
Brizard’s Angelique grows stronger and taller the more she is mistreated. Her outspoken disdain towards servitude and her two masters comes to a peak the night a historic fire destroys a hospital and dozens of houses, including her owner’s residence. She runs away with an indentured white servant while the fire rages but is recaptured. Despite there being very little evidence against her, Angélique was tortured until she confessed. She was then convicted and publicly hanged.
The play is long (it cries out for an intermission) and director Mike Payette has taken liberties with the script adding odd contemporary references to the lines of the six cast members. A horse and carriage is called a Mercedes and one actor actually calls out Bada Boom Bada Bing, mimicking the annoying hotel commercial currently airing on TV.
Despite the shortcomings and the weird outs in the script, this is a play that must be seen. Angélique skewers Quebec’s oft-denied history of slavery.