Actors stroll the west end streets to tell the story about Canada’s first black letter carrier.
By: Isabel Teotonio Living reporter, Published on Tue Jul 14 2015
A play about Canada’s first black letter carrier is set to hit the stage — or rather, the Toronto porches where he once delivered mail.
The promenade piece taking place on the verandas of Harbord Village tells the story of Albert Jackson, a runaway child slave who overcame hostility and prejudice to become the city’s — and the country’s — first black postman in 1882.
“It’s been a long journey, but we’re there,” says David Ferry, artistic director of Appledore Productions, who came up with the idea for The Postman in 2012 after reading a Toronto Star article about Jackson.
“Ann Maria Jackson and (her son) Albert Jackson are extraordinary everyday heroes that nobody knows about,” says Ferry, adding theirs is a story that “should be celebrated.”
Local residents’ groups and business improvement associations jumped on board to help the project come to fruition. They went door-to-door and explained the concept to residents: Scenes take place on various verandas, meaning the audience travels with performers from house to house. About 15 homeowners are lending their porches to the play, which runs from July 14 to July 26.
“The neighbourhood has been fantastic,” says Ferry. “People are really genuinely intrigued and helpful.”
The streets change daily, alternating between Brunswick Ave., Major St. and Palmerston Blvd., just west of Harbord Village. To accommodate those with mobility issues, there will be performances on July 18 and 26 at Margaret Fairley Park on Brunswick Ave.
In Toronto, there have been other site-specific plays, but this is believed to be the first one of this kind and size. And, says Ferry, it certainly presented challenges, such as sorting out the days for garbage collection and when parking switches from one side of the street to the other.
When the show is on, Ferry expects curious passersby will be tempted to stop and join the audience, noting, “We can’t stop people from watching.” But ticket holders will receive a bonus — they’ll be given a link to download a free app onto their mobile devices that will act as playbill and provide extra information, including historical facts.
This west-end neighbourhood is significant because it is where Jackson lived and delivered mail. His family went on to own about nine homes in this area, where an alley is named Albert Jackson Lane.
One of the Brunswick Ave. porches being used belongs to Patrick Crean, who in 2007 published Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad when he was head of Thomas Allen Publishers. Crean read about the Jackson family’s escape, which is covered in the book, and by coincidence learned that he lives in the house once owned by Jackson. (Crean was one of the early supporters of The Postman and Frost acted as the project’s historian.)
Actor Laurence Dean Ifill, best known for his role as Bronco Davis on Degrassi Junior High, plays the role of Albert Jackson and leads a cast of 17 actors and musicians. Ferry co-wrote the play with Joseph Pierre, Lisa Codrington, Andrew Moodie, Leah-Simone Bowen, Sugith Varughese and Roy Lewis. Original music is by Saidah Baba Talibah and Brooke Blackburn.
During the hour-long porch performances, the audience must stand, which shouldn’t be too cumbersome, says Ferry, likening it to a “stroll in the neighbourhood” that’s ushered along by live music. In the event of rain, the play will take place at the Randolph Academy for the Performing Arts on Bathurst St.
This production of The Postman was commissioned by the arts and culture festival Panamania. It has been optioned by Mirvish Productions and could be turned into a full-length show.
Tickets are $13. For more information visit thepostmanwalks.bpt.me. A day before the performance, audience members will receive an email telling them where to meet for the show.
Escape to freedom
Albert Calvin Jackson was born around 1856 in Milford, Del., and was one of nine children. His father was a free man but because his mother Ann Maria Jackson was a slave he and his siblings were slaves too.
After Jackson’s two older brothers were sold, his mother rounded up her remaining children and fled north in 1858 through the Underground Railroad.
They travelled to Toronto — a journey that is mentioned in Karolyn Smardz Frost’s book I’ve Got a Home in Glory Land: A Lost Tale of the Underground Railroad.
Once here, they were helped by Thornton and Lucie Blackburn, who had themselves escaped slavery in Kentucky and in 1834 arrived in Toronto, where they established the city’s first taxi business. (Frost learned of the Jacksons while researching her book, which recounts the tale of the Blackburn family.)
The Jacksons rented rooms in St. John’s ward, a downtown neighbourhood where many newcomers lived in slum conditions. A determined Ann Maria took in laundry to make ends meet and sent her children to be educated.
On May 17, 1882, Jackson showed up for his first day as a letter carrier, but because he was black his coworkers refused to show him around, upset his rank was higher than some white colleagues.
The city’s newspapers wrote about “the obnoxious coloured man” and “the intense disgust of the existing post office staff.” For days, debate raged in the press about whether blacks and whites were equal. The city’s black community was mobilized into action and on May 30 they met with then-prime minister John A. Macdonald, who intervened on Jackson’s behalf. It was an election year and Macdonald didn’t want to upset black voters.
Two days later, Jackson was back on his mail route and worked for the post office until his death in 1918. Researcher Colin McFarquhar wrote about the controversy in a 2007 article for the journal Ontario History, but otherwise very little was known about Toronto’s first black letter carrier.