By Stephen Weir
The story of how Angélique, a young Montreal domestic slave, set fire to Montreal and was hanged for her trouble is no state secret. However, the fact that there was slavery in Canada, and at least one black woman fought back in 1724, is not a well-known fact.
“The trouble with history is knowing whose version of the facts are real. While the establishment might see Angélique, as a villain, the Black community will have a different take,” said Luke Reece a producer at Obsidian Theatre. “Next week we are opening Angélique, a play that tells her story and gives a vibrant account of Canadian Black history.”
Angélique, a classic Canadian play written by the late Lorena Gale, is based on the transcripts of the trial of an enslaved Black woman who was tortured and hanged for the Montreal fire 245 years ago. The current drama (mounted initially by the Quebec-based Black Theatre Workshop) draws a line from the relatively unknown dark past to this country’s contemporary struggles with racism.
The remounted classic is currently on tour in Ontario. After successful runs in Montreal and Ottawa over past few months, it is now en route to Toronto. It will be opening on April 3 at the Factory Lab Theatre on Bathurst St. for a three week stay.
“We were approached by Factory Lab to co-produce Angélique. That is because Obsidian is known for our commitment to being a platform for dramatically telling the Black story,” Reece told the Caribbean Camera.
“As you know we work with Canada’s best Black actors and actresses, be they established or about to be discovered. Audiences know and trust our take on (contemporary theatre).”
The play stars Jenny Brizard, a young Montreal actress and dancer who has performed in both English and French on stage, film and television. She has already portrayed Angélique in a short 2017 film, and for the last few months has been working with director Mike Payette on this current take on the play.
“We had a chance to meet Jenny before we even knew that we would be signing on to Gale’s revival. We regularly bring in Black artists to show us what they are doing, and giving them the opportunity to network with other Black actors, actresses, producers and the theatre community,” explained Reece. “She blew us away, and I know Toronto will be in awe of what they will see from her next week.”
Although you don’t need to know who Angélique was, it is helpful to know the backstory.
She was born in Portugal, probably in 1705, and was enslaved and sold as a young teenager to a Flemish slaver. She was shipped to the US and was sold again to a New France (Quebec) slaver in 1725 and brought north to Montreal where she worked as a domestic slave.
She was not a model servant and was sold again to a Quebec City merchant who was set to ship her out to work in the Caribbean, once the St Lawrence River was free of ice. When fire leveled the Merchant District of Montreal in 1734, she was arrested and accused of setting the fire while attempting to flee her owners. She was tried, tortured and forced to publically confess her crimes. She was then hung, her body was put on display from a giblet and then finally burned.
This play casts doubt on the decision of the court and the ultimate guilt of the young woman.
Some historians say that she was railroaded because of her reputation as a difficult runaway; others write that her arson was an act of rebellion against slavery.
Jenny Brizard and company burned down the house in Montreal and Ottawa. It is now Toronto’s turn to see if we can stand the heat!