For many Canadians, Viola Desmond is simply the face of the current ten-dollar bill or recognized from her 2016 Heritage Minute. Both commemorate Desmond’s act of defiance in 1946 as she refused to give up her seat in a section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre reserved for white patrons. Subsequently arrested and charged, Desmond would spark the modern civil rights movement in Canada.
For the co-creators of the new musical Hey Viola!, Krystle Dos Santos and Tracey Power wanted to go beyond her life as a civil rights trailblazer to paint a fuller picture of her as a feminist and successful black Canadian businesswoman.
“We wanted to tell her whole life story to give context as to who she was,” says Dos Santos, who also plays Desmond in this solo show. “We wanted to highlight all of the positive, amazing accomplishments that she had in addition to that horrible incident that she had in New Glasgow at the movie theatre.”
Like so many others, both Dos Santos and Power knew little about Desmond before starting what was originally called The Viola Desmond Project.
“With the release of the ten-dollar bill, I found myself wanting to know about her, and I would ask people if they knew who Viola Desmond was,” says Power. “But nobody really knew who she was and it just didn’t feel good enough. People deserve to know her story and her accomplishments.”
Approaching Dos Santos with the idea of telling Viola’s story, Dos Santos also became intrigued by a historical figure that she too knew little about.
“As Tracey and I started discussing the project and I learned more about Viola, the more I was moved by this woman’s experience,” says Dos Santos. “I was completely sold.”
Set in Small’s Paradise, a Harlem cabaret that Desmond once worked at as a coat check girl, Hey Viola! uses 15 songs from the era to help tell her life.
“Music has always had a way of reaching people on another level,” says Power of the decision to put Viola’s story to music. “What artists were singing about at the time became the soundtrack to Viola’s life. It was a really exciting way to get to know her.”
Dos Santos agrees. “Black music has always told the story of the community and the people who were creating and singing it,” she says.
Handing Power an original song list of three times as many songs that have ended up in the show, the two worked to narrow them to pieces that suited the storyline.
“If you’re going to put music in a play, it has to continue a story in some or give us further insight into that moment in the story; otherwise, it shouldn’t be there,” says Power.
“As I’m going through and singing the songs along with script again, there are a lot of lyrics songs that mirror, mimic or refer to a lot of things that are in the story itself,” adds Dos Santos. “It just goes to show the universal nature of music and lyrics.”
In development since 2018, Dos Santos is aware of the added resonance in telling Desmond’s story in the era of Black Lives Matter and the current fight for racial justice.
“The fight is a lifelong, centuries-long fight,” reminds Dos Santos. “I’ve seen it that way for a long time, and this time the current movement that began with George Flloyd is resonating and changing systems differently than ever before. It takes the whole idea of Viola Desmond and her story and not only validates it but highlights it as well. It is quite an amazing intersection of timing, and there is no time like the present to tell a story like this.”
“This is a beautiful, personal and relatable story about an extremely successful strong businesswoman in our history who was way ahead of her time,” adds Power. “And not only does it include a beautiful Black woman from Canada but tells a massive civil rights movement that Canada’s history usually does not highlight.”
Set to re-open New Westminster’s Anvil Centre after its months-long closure, Hey Viola! runs October 15-25 with COVID-19 restrictions and safety protocols in place. Visit anvilcentre.com for tickets and information.