For co-curator and co-producer Mariam Barry, Ensemble Theatre Company’s upcoming Us: A Black Peoples Month Festival is about the light and the dark of what it means to be Black.
“It is a combination of joy and rage in terms of the pieces we’ve curated,” says the multidisciplinary artist. “That is what it means to be Black in these times. It is a joyful experience, and it can also be an absolutely frustrating experience as well.”
For her co-curator and co-producer, actor Adrian Neblett, it was a desire to showcase as many different Black voices as possible.
“Often what is termed as the Black experience is somewhat monolithic,” says Neblett. “Either on purpose, because the powers that be only want to see certain examples of what life is or by accident through systemic racism and white supremacy that only allow for certain voices to be heard.”
Calling it a Black Peoples Month Festival encompassed so much more than just looking back at history. Looking back is fine, but we wanted to make it about what is, what was, and what could be. – Adrian Neblett
Being held in what is traditionally known as Black History Month in Canada, the festival’s title was deliberate.
“Calling it a Black Peoples Month Festival encompassed so much more than just looking back at history,” says Neblett. “Looking back is fine, but we wanted to make it about what is, what was, and what could be.”
“It liberates us from the over-representation of Black people as slaves or as being oppressed,” adds Barry. “We want our audience to cast their eyes towards the future.”
In choosing the theme of “belonging” for the festival, the two also felt it met their goal of placing a spotlight on the diversity within the Black community itself.
“We wanted to include anybody who identifies as Black or is identified as Black,” says Neblett.
“One of the things Adrian says in our meetings is that not only do Black lives matter, but all black lives matter,” adds Barry. “I think that distinction is important. Often as we move towards liberation, queer voices or female voices are pushed aside. It was important for us to make this an inclusive circle for all forms of Blackness.”
The Black community’s diversity is evident in the shows Barry and Neblett have brought together for the festival, who had no problem filling the limited number of spaces available.
“There is a lot of work out there that generally speaking doesn’t play or come to Vancouver,” says Neblett. “It wasn’t challenging to find content at all.”
Among the festival’s offerings is a filmed version of L. Trey Wilson’s Three Part Disharmony, a conversation between three Black males about how one should act when confronted by the police. Also on tap is an audio version of Aziza Barnes’s BLKS, a coming of age play about Black female friendships.
Not content to curate and produce the festival, Barry and Neblett are also participants.
Neblett not only appears in Three Part Disharmony but will also speak James Baldwin’s words in The Poet & The Patrician: Baldwin vs Buckley. This audio recreation of the 1965 debate on America’s racial divides between Baldwin and William F. Buckley Jr. continues to resonate 55 years later.
As well as taking on a role in BLKS, Barry’s short film Legacy, a personal exploration of the migrant crisis through the lens of modern African youth, will also screen. Based on a play she has been working on for several years now, Barry felt it was the right time to tell the story now.
“This is the first time that I have authentically captured both sides of who I am, as a biracial person, and having grown up internationally,” says Barry. “It has been difficult for me to speak to that experience because it is so specific and yet so global. [Legacy] is me going deeper into my own art and share my own stories.”
Rounding out the festival is the Us Film Festival, a global celebration of Black talent. After discarding the idea of hosting the event online, organizers are still searching for a location to host the films as a drive-in movie night.
“When we first started talking about the film festival, we thought about doing it online but felt we were missing the community element, especially the opportunity for local Black filmmakers to have their films shown on a big screen,” says Barry.
Us: A Black Peoples Month Festival runs from January 28 through February 25 with a series of free events. Visit ensembletheatrecompany.ca for more information.