If the late Viola Desmond’s storied life as a Nova Scotian business owner and civil rights activist demonstrates anything, it’s that even the simply beloved can also be stubbornly complicated.
Happily, Andrea Scott likes complicated.
“I’m inspired by people who speak their mind and stand their truth no matter what,” says the Ontario-based actor, producer, and writer who’s spent the better part of two years living and breathing all things Desmond for her play, Controlled Damage, which debuted at Neptune Theatre last month. “But to call Viola a hero is going pretty far. Even her husband didn’t support her.”
But wait, didn’t Desmond bravely defy the forces of racism when, in 1946, she refused to move to the “coloured people’s” section of a New Glasgow movie theatre? Wasn’t she convicted on a trumped-up charge of failing to pay a one-cent amusement tax on the cost of her “white” seat, and didn’t she fight that judgement (albeit, unsuccessfully) all the way to the Supreme Court of Nova Scotia?
What’s more, didn’t Canada Post issue a stamp bearing her likeness in 2012? Didn’t the Bank of Canada put her on the $10 bill (the country’s first vertical note, if that means anything) in 2018? And didn’t the Royal Canadian Mint release a silver coin in her honour just last year?
Yes, Scott concedes, but that’s not why people should remember the woman half a century after her death. Forget posthumous fame. It’s who she was when she was, warts and all, that matters. That’s what should resonate with people looking to change their own small corners of the universe today. “If someone told her, ‘You can’t do this’, she would snap back, ‘Says who?’” Scott says. “She was an ordinary person who did an extraordinary thing. That was her real power.”
Certainly, when audiences piled into Neptune (the play was 70% sold out by early December) for opening night on Feb. 7, the Viola they saw was not the icon, but the human being who steadfastly refused to let anyone push her around.
“Andrea has created a piece that reflects both a time in history and a real person,” says Jeremy Webb, the Neptune’s artistic director. “It allows us to take a good look at ourselves right now.”
Adds Controlled Damage director Nigel Shawn Williams: “While there’s nothing comic about the story at all, it manages to balance systemic racism, misogyny, and colonial patriarchy with a great deal of humanity and humour.”
If that’s all true, Scott says, then she’s relieved. Managing this particular stagecraft has seemed, at times, almost as complicated as the all-too-human subject it explores. Controlled Damage is what dramaturgs like to call a “big play.” The Neptune production boasted 10 actors (seven of whom are local) performing 23 different parts, live music, and numerous scene changes.
“Fast, furious and very entertaining,” is how Williams describes it. A far cry from its humble beginnings is how Scott might put it.
“Carrie Costello at the Manitoba Theatre for Young People wanted to see more plays about strong Canadian women,” she recalls about a conversation with her colleague a couple of years ago. “She asked me and a few other women to write eight-minute plays she’d be comfortable taking her daughters to see. That’s when I discovered Viola Desmond. The more I read, the more I wondered why I’d never heard of her.”
Costello never got the funding for her project, but Scott was hooked by the story of the Nova Scotian beauty-salon owner who refused to give up her seat in a rural cinema because of the colour of her skin.
“To me, what happened to her was a microcosm of what was happening every day to real people all over our country,” Scott says. “Viola wasn’t resisting to make a larger point about social justice, at least not then. She was just defending herself and standing up for herself. She paid her dime and wanted to see the movie, just like anyone else. She did what a lot of us would do if put in the same situation. I believe that’s what everyone needs to understand today.”
Scott also felt a personal kinship with her subject. Born and raised in London, Ontario, she felt rejection’s sting early when an authority figure told her she might as well forget about writing. It was 1987, and she was 16.
“I don’t have a warm, fuzzy story about an English teacher who believed in me or encouraged me,” she says. “It was quite the opposite. But I didn’t let that stop me.”
She enrolled at the University of Toronto and eventually obtained a master’s degree in theatre. After graduation, she worked as an actor on stage, in television and film, but she grew tired of the roles available to her. “I wanted to see more women of colour in the theatre, and it became clear that if I wanted to see that, I would have to create them. I would have to write.”
She began in 2011, producing a flurry of well-regarded, award-winning pieces, including Eating Pomegranates Naked (2013), Better Angels: A Parable (2014), Don’t Talk To Me Like I’m Your Wife (2016), and Every Day She Rose (2019). According to Genn Sumi, writing in Now magazine in 2016, Scott’s plays invariably “feature strong, fierce roles for Black women.”
The life and times of Viola Desmond seemed a perfect installment in this oeuvre. Scott took the work in progress to a playwright retreat at Stratford where the resident dramaturg, Bob White, urged her to make the piece as “big as it can possibly be.” She enlisted the support of B-Current, a Black theatre company in Toronto, whose artistic director Catherine Hernandez loved the play so much she was willing to help fund its production at another company.
Enter Jeremy Webb in 2017. He met Scott at a Starbucks in downtown Toronto and was instantly impressed. “To be honest, I saw a
bit of myself in her,” he says. “She’s an entrepreneur, a producer, a creator, an actor, an activist. She doesn’t take BS from anyone. She’s also warm, funny and sociable. So, put it all together and, sure, I would be very happy having this person in my theatre. Of course, after I read the finished play, I knew that if we hadn’t been involved…well, that would have been embarrassing.”
Scott doesn’t know how much money Neptune and B-Company have spent mounting her premiere (“They don’t tell me things like that,” she says). But at one point during the negotiations, she estimated between $150,000 and $175,000.
Now, of course, that work is done and all that remains is the play: holding up the past as a mirror for the present. Does Controlled Damage uncover the ordinary importance beneath the extraordinary actions of a Nova Scotia civil rights icon? Does it persuade audiences that they can be the heroes of their own lives?
It’s complicated, and Andrea Scott likes that very much.