David Ferry plans to take the story of Albert Jackson to the city’s front porches in 2015.
By: Isabel Teotonio Living reporter, Published on Thu Feb 20 2014
Lawrence Jackson sits in the front row, leaning forward on his cane, never taking his eyes off the stage. A group of Toronto artists is bringing to life the story of his grandfather, Albert Jackson, a child slave who fled to Canada on the Underground Railroad and overcame racial prejudice to become the city’s first black letter carrier in 1882.
The 81-year-old watches as they read scenes created during a two-week workshop for a new play called The Postman, intended for production in the summer of 2015 as a promenade piece that will take place on 12 porches along Brunswick Ave. He’s among 50 people at this east-end church, invited to see the work in progress and provide feedback to writers, composers, musicians and actors. Scenes include white postmen refusing to show Albert Jackson his route and reassigning him to the menial job of hall porter; the indignation of Toronto’s black community, which launched petitions and letter-writing campaigns to local newspapers; and the intervention of then prime-minister John A. Macdonald to ensure he was given his route. During intermission, Jackson — the family patriarch — makes his way to the stage to greet director David Ferry and meet actor Laurence Dean Ifill, who plays the role of his grandfather.
“You made me feel as if I was watching a reincarnation,” says Jackson of Brantford, Ont., who was accompanied by relatives, including a daughter who travelled from Michigan.
For the director and lead actor, this is high praise. The two have worked tirelessly to bring Albert Jackson’s tale to the stage — or rather, to the porch. Ferry dreamed up the idea after reading a Star article in February 2012 about Jackson.
“It blew me away,” says Ferry. “This idea of what the family had gone through.”
In 1858, an enslaved Ann Maria Jackson fled Delaware with seven of her children, the youngest being Albert. Many women wouldn’t have risked such a feat, fearful young ones couldn’t handle the journey and their whimpers might alert slave catchers. But she went north after her two oldest sons were sold — they were later reunited — and her husband died.
African-American abolitionist William Still ran a station of the Underground Railroad and helped the Jacksons reach Canada. Like many newcomers, they settled in Toronto’s St. John’s Ward, a working class neighbourhood. As noted in the Star article, part of the Jackson family’s ordeal is detailed in historian Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad. By sheer coincidence, the book’s publisher, Patrick Crean, discovered he lived in the same Brunswick Ave. house once owned by Albert Jackson. Crean led a successful campaign to name a nearby alley Albert Jackson Lane: a tribute to a man whose family came to own about 10 homes in the area around Bathurst and Harbord Sts.
Ferry, who owns Appledore Productions, came up with the idea of a theatre piece that would start in Albert Jackson Lane and make its way to Brunswick Ave., moving from porch to porch. The street is also significant because Ferry says it was part of Albert Jackson’s route.
The 12 porches will be like mini-stages, akin to “stations of the cross of (Albert Jackson’s) life.”
“I’ve never done anything so out of left field as this project,” says Ferry.
Ifill, best known for his role as Bronco Davis on Degrassi Junior High, loved Ferry’s idea and jumped on board from the get-go.
“(Playing Albert Jackson) is an honour that I’m extremely grateful for,” says Ifill. “The facts of his life can be very empowering, especially for a young Canadian.”
As part of their research, the pair contacted Frost — she’s now the project’s historian — visited Toronto’s First Post Office and began sketching out a story line both were acting in a West Coast production of Of Mice and Men.
“I want people to feel deep respect for this man who struggled so hard to be able to do the job he had chosen to do, and for which he was hired, but denied because of his colour,” says Frost, a visiting professor at Acadia University. “He, his family and the community around him persisted until he was given the right to do the job he had been hired to do. . . . I want people to honour that life.”
In March 2013, Ferry came across another Star article, about the Canadian Union of Postal Workers recognizing Jackson’s achievements with a commemorative poster. (The union believes he was the first black letter carrier in all of Canada.) Ferry attended the public event to meet family members and tell them about his ambitious project. He has reached out to various playwrights, including Joseph Pierre and Andrew Moodie, asking each to write about a different stage in Jackson’s life. And he’s hoping to get more writers to contribute, including Austin Clarke, Djanet Sears and Lawrence Hill. Moodie, a history buff, learned about Jackson while writing The Real McCoy in 2007, the true story about black Canadian inventor Elijah McCoy. Moodie thought he would one day want to write about Albert Jackson, so he jumped when Ferry asked him to participate in The Postman. Moodie chose to write about Jackson’s first day on the job, when white workers refused to show him his route, instead handing him a broom.
“I grew up as a black kid in Ontario and I know what it’s like to be filled with dreams of possibilities of what you can be and what can you do. And I also know what it’s like to go to a place of work and they realize the person they were talking to actually wasn’t the colour they expected.”
In writing the scene, Moodie drew from his own experience as teenager, when he was hired over the phone for a job at an Ottawa restaurant. When he showed up, they told him the position was filled.
“It was soul-crushing,” recalls Moodie. “But at the same time, the stakes for Albert were much, much higher. The prime minister didn’t call the restaurant for me.”
To run the workshop, Ferry raised $30,000 from the Canada Council for the Arts,Obsidian Theatre Company and the Arts and Culture Program of the Toronto 2015 Pan Am and Parapan Am Games. To produce the piece, he’ll need at least $60,000, along with permission from the city and neighbours.
One person who hopes The Postman comes to fruition is Mark Brown, the Toronto regional education and organization officer of the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Not only does it recognize the important public service of door-to-door mail delivery, which Canada Post plans to eliminate, but the story resonates deeply with him.as the first black person elected to a regional union office.
“If you’re the first to break ground in anything, in any industry, as a worker of colour you take a beating,” says Brown, noting you have to work longer and harder than your predecessor. “But you also pave the way for those who come after.”
Judging from the standing ovation at the workshop, Brown isn’t the only one looking forward to the production.
“This is awesome,” said Lawrence Jackson. “Coming across from the States to Canada, to a new-found land where you could live and be human, that’s what really got to me.”