PAN AM GAMES FEATURE JULY 9 – 15, 2015 | THE NA WEEKLY GLEANER | BY NEIL ARMSTRONG, Gleaner Writer
THE STORY of Toronto’s first black postman comes alive in a new play, The Postman, which showcases in promenade style theatre during PANAMANIA, the arts and culture festival of the Pan Am/Parapan American Games.
David Ferry of Appledore Productions, co-creator and project director of the play, says he was reading an article in the Toronto Star about the naming of Albert Jackson Lane a couple years ago. It included a picture of one of the houses that Jackson owned on Brunswick Avenue, now owned by publisher, Patrick Crean, who was on the porch with two descendants of Jackson.
“I was so intrigued by the heroism of Mrs. Jackson and the bravery and honour of Albert in his fight against racism in Toronto to get his job, and the added twist of John A. McDonald being involved in the story. But then the picture of the porch really made something go boom in my head,” says Ferry, who told his colleague and actor, Laurence Dean Ifill, that it could be a really great theatre project to tell the family’s story.
He wanted it to be done on the porches where Jackson used to deliver the mail, including the one in the photograph that now has a plaque about Jackson. Ferry asked Ifill to play Albert Jackson who said he feels honoured and grateful that it was brought to his attention.
“I think it’s a very empowering story. When David first told me about it I was surprised that I hadn’t heard this story before. It just seemed like, to me, such an important story of Canada’s national fabric,” says Ifill.
Albert Jackson was born in Miliford, Delaware in 1856 to John and Anne Maria Jackson, a couple who worked on a large plantation. After his father died from, presumably, a broken heart caused by the sale of his two eldest children, Anne Maria decides to escape the plantation for freedom.
Along with her seven children, she managed to avoid slave catchers and reached Pennsylvania through the help of some agents of the Underground Railroad. They continued their journey to St. Catharines, Ontario and freedom. The Jacksons moved to the neighbourhood around Osgoode Hall, then called St. John’s Gate, where his mother worked as a laundress and Albert had the privilege of public schooling – something neither his parents nor most of his siblings ever received. Like Ifill, Karen Glave, who plays Mrs. Jackson, says she is surprised that she did not know this history of Toronto.
“I lived in The Annex area for the majority of my time here in Toronto. I didn’t know that. I used to work at a restaurant at Harbord and Major. I didn’t know that there was a man, Albert Jackson, who fought so hard to have a job in the postal service and that he owned homes. It’s just phenomenal, it’s incredible,” says the actor who was born just outside of Montreal, in Chateauguay, Quebec. Glave describes Anne Maria as a courageous woman who had to find her own inner strength and resources to save her seven remaining children.
“I think she was a very strong, determined woman and she taught her children to have that inner strength and to work hard. She knew she didn’t struggle and risk that much to get them to Canada, to get them to escape slavery for them to not try to make something wonderful of the opportunity that they have in this new place,” she says of Anne Maria’s influence on Albert.
When Jackson completed his schooling in May 1882, he applied to the postal service and was accepted for the position of postman. His assignment was met with protest by his white co-workers who refused to train or work with him. Jackson was demoted to a hall porter to defuse the tension but this resulted in an outcry from the African American community, led by two of his brothers – John Jr. and Robert, a barber to many prominent Torontonians.
They were so incensed that they took the matter to the Prime Minister’s Office and urged Sir John A. McDonald to intervene on Jackson’s behalf. The prime minister stepped in and Jackson was returned to his original job as a postman – a position he remained in until his death in 1918.
The play will unfold on three separate streets: Palmerston Boulevard on which Jackson owned houses, Major Street, and Brunswick Avenue.
Ferry has been going around to meet the owners on each street that have volunteered their porches.
“What was extraordinary was how honoured they were that their porches were being used. We thought, ‘Oh My Gosh, we’re so lucky!’ but they were just all so turned on by the idea,” says Ferry.
The idea of using the porches came from thinking about the importance of the delivery of mail in the late 1800s and thinking of what would be in the mail stories from back home, bills, cheques; the lifeline for all those people.
“I came to the idea of doing the whole play like a kind of quilt where people stitch together their own patches with their own kind of image or story in each patch on the quilt.”
The co-creator says there are seven writers and two composers who have been creating material for this piece and it is quite impressionistic. Brooke Blackburn and Saidah Baba Talibah, the composers, have created a blend of gospel and blues music.
It starts with Jackson talking about what his life was like in a prologue and then goes from his childhood with his mother, the flight of his mother and her family to Canada, his siblings becoming successful business people and Albert applying for the postal job and when he turns up the huge reaction to the colour of his skin.
Ferry says there were many white people in Toronto that were shocked that he was being treated this way and Jackson’s brothers were very organized politically and really kicked up a stink. Having to deal with the logistics of moving 50 people from porch to porch, keeping the musicians together as they play the songs, 17 cast members, and dealing with things such as traffic, noise, ambient sounds, mosquitoes, which can be distracting to the cast and audience, they have kept the play down to 65 minutes. A full-length version will be done later on.
“Every show for me there’s always a little bit of challenge when it comes to rehearsal so I’m looking forward to meeting it head on,” says Ifill who will be doing promenade style theatre for the first time.
Glave has done site-specific theatre before at the Fringe Festival in a loft where the audience followed the family from room to room and was excited by the experience. “I realized that I’d never done anything like that before and I found I really enjoyed that experience. If the audience become even more so engaged in following the whole action of the play, from moment to moment, scene to scene, they go along for the ride.”
She has performed in Shakespeare in the Rough at Wychwood Park, Twelfth Night – her first show outside theatre school at High Park – and so she is accustomed to having an unexpected dog run through the scene or children playing.
“That’s part of the excitement of being outdoors. There’s all this other element that you can’t account for and you just go with it. I don’t think it will take away from anything during the show.”
Ferry says Ifill told him about growing up here and in high schools never being taught any history stories about African Canadians, probably outside of a day spent on the Underground Railroad in history class.
“We’ve met so many of these fantastic descendants who’ve been at the readings we’ve done and the workshops we’ve had and we’ve got their approval of this storytelling, of course. They’re all fantastic people and they’re so proud of their ancestry,” says Ferry about the reaction of Jackson’s family to the play.
Patrons will also have a mobile digital experience that complements the production.
“We wanted to be able to give people a takeaway because we’re faced with a show where we basically wouldn’t be able to stop people from joining into the show. So, we wanted to be able to give people a takeaway that was going to be somewhat different,” says Ifill.
“We decided to create the concept of an App. that would be able to go with the show, that would be a takeaway where it would have historical facts that you would end up hearing within the show and some that you wouldn’t end up hearing from within the show at all,” he continues.
It will have the biographies of the cast, photographs, and segments of the show.
Appledore Productions has also come up with a programme affiliated with St. Alban’s Boys & Girls Club in which ten youth from the organization will be mentored by the professional artists in the show and will also sing with the cast and become part of the chorus. They will be the public ambassadors that will lead the audience around.
Glave says people don’t realize that there is a Black culture in Canada from the 1800s and before that, and wants the many black communities in Toronto and visitors to the city for the Games to come out and see this part of Canadian history.
The play runs from July 12 to 26 and the details can be found at www.toronto2015.org or at www.thepostmanwalks.com.