Show looks at T.O.’s first black postman

BY  | JULY 8, 2015  | NOW Toronto

THE POSTMAN conceived by David Ferry, written by Joseph Pierre, Lisa Codrington, Andrew Moodie, Leah-Simone Bowen, Sugith Varughese, Ferry and Roy Lewis. Presented by Appledore Productions and Panamania. Ticket holders will be emailed meeting place the day before performance. Previews Sunday (July 12), opens Tuesday (July 14) and runs to July 26 (except Monday), various times. $13. thepostmanwalks.bpt.me


It wasn’t until recently that actor Laurence Dean Ifill realized that among the heroes of black Canadian history was Albert Jackson, Toronto’s first black postman.

“Our history goes far beyond Harriet Tubman, who helped bring former slaves to Canada, and Josiah Henson, another ex-slave who settled here,” says Ifill, who plays Jackson in The Postman, a site-specific play that literally traces the path of Jackson’s postal route in the Annex.

The show began a few years ago when director David Ferry and Ifill were inspired by a newspaper article about Jackson, who came to Canada as an infant in the arms of his mother. She brought six of his brothers and sisters with her, and two other sons, sold to new masters, eventually joined them.

“He was only a year old when he made the journey,” says the actor, “and I can only imagine the strength of his mother to do something like this. It was usual to hide a small child in a knapsack, but how do you stop an infant from crying? I’m sure his mother provided a foundation of spiritual strength for the whole family, a strength they had for their entire lives.”

The play is a walkabout production, the action taking place on porches along Palmerston, Major and Brunswick, with the audience following the story both on the sidewalk and from house to house.

Ferry contributed to the script but also invited others, including Joseph Pierre, Lisa Codrington, Andrew Moodie, Leah-Simone Bowen, Sugith Varughese and Roy Lewis, to write segments.

It begins in 1882, when Jackson was hired to deliver the mail. On his first day, however, he was handed a broom and told to sweep the office. There were debates about whether Jackson should be given the job, white racist voices being prominent in the “no” camp that deemed him “the objectionable African.”

“It was a transitional period in Toronto’s history, when people like black politician William Peyton Hubbard were making a name for themselves. Many people defended Jackson, including his brothers. Robert Jackson was barber to some important Torontonians. Eventually, John A. Macdonald, running for a second term, spoke up for Jackson and the matter was settled.

“Ironically, the time from when the issue was raised to its settling by Macdonald’s actions was only two days. That floors me, in an era without social media.”

Ifill, who’s probably best known for his work in the original Degrassi High, is as ardent about the show’s music as he is about its script.

“I told David from the start that I wanted to use two composers, Saidah Baba Talibah and Brooke Blackburn. There are a few older tunes in the show, including a spiritual and a minstrel number, but the bulk of the music is new. Both composers are trailblazers in their own way while coming from a strong musical lineage. Saidah’s mother is Salome Bey, and Brooke’s father is keyboard player Bobby Dean Blackburn, an important part of the Toronto R&B scene beginning in the 1960s.”

Just as strong is a cast that includes Karen Glave, Layne Coleman, Maurice Dean Wint, Claire Armstrong, Ngabo Nabea, Virgilia Griffith, Varughese and Lewis.

“This is a Rolls-Royce of a company,” Ifill says with a smile, “just the right one to present an important but largely unknown part of Canadian history.”

jonkap@nowtoronto.com