A little-known episode in Canadian history becomes a powerful piece of site-specific theatre

Now Toronto  |  by   July 16, 2015   3:12 PM

The Postman

THE POSTMAN conceived by David Ferry (Appledore/Panamania). Ticket holders will be emailed meeting place the day before performance. Runs to July 26, various times.

$13.  thepostmanwalks.bpt.me.  Rating: NNNN

The Postman offers the most musical stroll you’ll ever take in the Annex.

The site-specific show, which features a walking band, focuses on Albert Jackson, hired in 1882 as Toronto’s first black postman, and his family’s history in the United States and Canada. Arriving on his first day as a letter carrier, Jackson, deemed by some “the inferior Negro,” was handed a broom and told that he had no right to deliver the mail.

The production, following the work route that Jackson himself took, takes place at rotating locations on Palmerston, Major and Brunswick, the action played out on porches and sidewalks as the audience tags along with the performers.

The journey is often exciting as we learn the background of Jackson (Laurence Dean Ifill), his increasingly depressed and angry father, John (Maurice Dean Wint), brave mother, Ann Maria (Karen Glave) and various siblings, six of whom came to Canada with their mother by means of the Underground Railroad.

Jumping back and forth in time, the story reveals episodes of Jackson’s fight for his job and the back story of a family that insisted on being treated as people rather than possessions or second-class servants.

Jackson achieves his goal with the help of John A. Macdonald (Layne Coleman), who was running for his second term as prime minister and saw the advantage, in terms of getting the black vote, of backing the newly hired postman.

A number of scenes stand out, among them a running plotline in which Jackson is welcomed by white homeowner Miss Van Peet (Claire Armstrong), who understands what it’s like being treated as an outsider; a laundry scene with Jackson’s mother and her daughters, which includes a feminist and social-justice subtext; the speech of a preacher-like figure (the resonant-voiced Roy Lewis) about the cost of silently accepting abuse; an internalized monologue by Jackson’s young brother (Ngabo Nabea) in which he won’t put up with treatment by a white racist; and the barnstorming speech by a mayoral candidate named Earwax (Sugith Varughese), complete with gibberish, grammatical errors and bigotry, is accompanied by a barnyard chorus.

Under David Ferry’s direction, the company is strong dramatically and musically, the songs and instrumentals giving the evening an extra boost. In addition to traditional melodies and spirituals, new tunes by Brooke Blackburn and Saidah Baba Talibah capture moments of sincerity, satire and fun. Wint plays a mean harmonica and Raha Javanfar a captivating fiddle, and the voices of Matthew Brown and Nicky Lawrence are standouts.

At this point, though, the character of Jackson needs fleshing out. Sure, the story is about him and we learn much about his life, but he himself isn’t as well developed as some of those around him.

The script, a group effort with contributions from Leah-Simone Bowen, Lisa Codrington, Ferry, Lewis, Andrew Moodie, Joseph Jomo Pierre and Varughese, also needs work. Some of the episodes aren’t as well tied together as they might be, and shifts in style and tone are occasionally awkward.

Still, this Postman delivers the goods, most of them, in a powerful fashion.