By Serena Lopez
As a child, Pablo Ogunlesi had a wild imagination. He would spend most of his time creating and acting out scenarios in his head, like being a football player or a warrior battling in a dramatic fight scene. At 16, he began to participate in high school plays and eventually decided to turn his love for drama into a career in acting.
After graduating from Ryerson’s performance acting program in 2019, he began working as a full-time actor. But like many others in his field, Ogunlesi’s employment was negatively affected by the pandemic as theatre companies closed down, leaving him unable to land opportunities in a live theatre.
It wasn’t until he was offered the chance to act in a project called 21 Black Futures that he landed his first role since the start of the pandemic. 21 Black Futures is an anthology of 21 plays by 21 Black playwrights, each performed by a single Black actor for a total of 21.
The project is being led by Obsidian Theatre Company, a theatre dedicated to empowering Black creatives and centring Black voices through their productions. It brings the creativity of a multitude of Black artists from the theatre space into a streamable platform.
Each episode runs 10 minutes and is scheduled to release weekly on Fridays throughout the month starting Feb. 12, streaming for free on CBC Gem.
Featuring the work of 63 Black Canadian actors, directors and playwrights from different provinces and cities across the country, the project tells stories that reflect the Black community in Canada, responding to the question: “What is the future of Blackness?”
“I feel like everyone will be able to watch at least one of the episodes and be able to see themselves and relate to a specific character”
Umoja Corp, a film part of the 21 Black Futures project, features Ogunlesi playing an orphaned young Black man grappling with the loss of his caregiver, who is arrested after attempting identity theft.
“I’m honoured to be a part of this whole project, to be one of the faces and voices used to represent the Black community in Canada,” said Ogunlesi. “It’s an honour because I feel like this is something I’ve always wanted to do.”
He said he hopes the project enlightens audiences about the Black Canadian experience and gives them an optimistic look towards the future knowing each story ends in a positive light.
“I feel like everyone will be able to watch at least one of the episodes and be able to see themselves and relate to a specific character.”
Connecting theatre to TV screens
Ogunlesi said what he appreciates most about 21 Black Futures is that it brings film and theatre together to create a “unique and new medium,” explaining that online streaming platforms allow theatre actors to gain recognition that they can’t access through performing solely on stage.
“It’s great for theatre actors because we can get that sort of recognition that theatre may not provide in terms of being on TV and people being able to go online and stream the films,” said Ogunlesi.
With theatres shut down due to the pandemic, theatre companies like Tarragon Theatre and Obsidian Theatre Company are looking for new ways to reach audiences that are stuck at home during the pandemic.
“I want people to be inspired by the dynamic storytelling by Black artists. Our truth. Our voice. Our range of creativity”
The idea of bringing a major theatre production to the screens of millions of Canadians to stream online is not only an ambitious accomplishment, but also brings together theatre and film in a more accessible environment, said Lisa Karen Cox, an assistant professor at the Ryerson School of Performance.
“More people will be able to watch the project regardless of location, ability, and experience, because it is online,” she said.
Cox, who is also a part of 21 Black Futures, is the director of monodrama Beyere, written by author and poet Shauntay Grant. Monodramas are theatrical performances that feature only one actor. Beyere, set in 2080, follows a character named Aodri, who has recently been diagnosed with a terminal illness. She makes it her mission to preserve her Ebanu culture by teaching her traditional language to her 10-year-old daughter using American Sign Language (ASL).
For Cox, being in a project led and executed by predominantly Black creatives allowed her to experience “a sense of safety and camaraderie in the rehearsal room that cannot be understated.”
Cox said when working on her monodrama for 21 Black Futures, there was no need for others to uphold any white or Eurocentric values and they could just be themselves. She noted that it “was such a gift” to have the virtual rehearsal room be entirely Black and femme, from the actors on set to the ASL interpreters.
Opportunities for Black creatives to tell their own stories on stage without feeling silenced are slim—Obsidian Theatre company is one of only two existing Black theatre companies in Canada. Ryerson graduate Virgilia Griffith said she hopes 21 Black Futures will help expose audiences to what Black artists have to offer.
“I want people to be inspired by the dynamic storytelling by Black artists. Our truth. Our voice. Our range of creativity,” said Griffith, who stars in Georgeena as the main protagonist.
Written by playwright Djanet Sears, the 21 Black Futures piece follows a Black woman named Georgeena dealing with the effects of microaggressions on her mental and emotional health. The story is meant to illustrate a woman choosing to take back her power and who “is moving through an awakening of no longer making negotiations and she’s choosing herself,” said Griffith.
She added that she’s looking forward to audiences being able to watch the work of Black theatre makers outside of just Toronto, but also Canada-wide and globally.
With the theatre-to-film format, Griffith is excited to reach new audiences. Since the film will stream for free, it’s not just limited to those who can afford the theatre. She also said she’s looking forward to seeing her work last longer, not just bound by a show’s running time.
“You mourn it after you do a show because it’s only there for a time,” said Griffith. “But doing [21 Black Futures] in this way we’re able to experiment as artists and the work will live on because of film.”
Centring Black narratives
As the pandemic has refocused public attention on how racism continues to exist within Canadian institutions and more broadly, increasing positive storytelling from Black, Indigenous and racialized artists on both the screen and stage has now become a mission within the arts industry.
Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, the artistic director of Obsidian Theatre, told She Does The City that the concept for 21 Black Futures arose from the isolation that she and the Black theatre community in Canada were experiencing due to the social unrest of the past year. They went looking for ways to rewrite the narrative that looks at the future of Blackness.
The process of including Black artists, both seasoned and young, from across Canada, into the project was intentional.
According to Cox, 21 Black Futures is “an expansive, authentic view of Blackness in Canada, which differs greatly from the Americanized monolithic view of what it is to be Black usually depicted in media.” The Americanized version tends to overpower or exclude the culture and experiences that are unique to Black Canadians.
She said she hopes the series being released on CBC challenges producers and broadcasters to include more Black Canadian creatives into the decision-making process. “I hope that all audience members have an opportunity to experience a sliver of someone else’s culture and life, and that it builds empathy and understanding.”
Since the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in the last year, Black artists are demanding change in the arts industry in Canada for its lack of representation by taking control of their own narratives through projects like 21 Black Futures.
“We have a responsibility as storytellers, especially when there is a broad audience, to ensure that there is authentic representation and that contemporary stories are lead by members of their community,” said Cox