Sun | Nov 17, 2019

Jamaica-born playwrights showcase black heritage in Toronto schools

Published:Sunday | February 28, 2016 | 12:00 AM
New School Actors (from left) Kian Warren (Tyler) and Jamaican, Tirah Thompson (Allison).
From left: Vasilios Filippakis (Nick), Juliana Roman (Sydney) and Shadrack Jackman (Iman), in a multimedia dance scene.
New School directors Debbie Deer (left) and Nicole Pena (second left), with the cast of the play.
Juliana Roman as Sydney (left) and Shadrack Jackman as Iman, enacting a Josephine Baker tribute.


February - Black History Month - is the month for recollections, reminiscing, celebrating and recognising the struggles, trials, tribulations and the achievements of people of the African Diaspora across North America.

Two Jamaica-born creative professionals are telling this story to educate schoolchildren in Canada about the significant contributions made by people from the African Diaspora.

"We want to inspire and educate students so that they can feel proud of their culture and heritage," said Debbie Deer, playwright, artist and a proud Jamaican, who, along with Nicole Pena, has written and directed The New School: Remix Your Thoughts - a multimedia production.

The concept and the inspiration behind the project, according to Deer and Pena, are to edify secondary students by highlighting the significant achievements and contributions made by people from the African Diaspora in a contemporary and entertaining way.

"We wanted to create a platform where students could critically analyse racial stereotypes," Pena said. "Issues of racial and sexual inclusion and finally challenge the frozen vision of African history."

Inclusion and unity is the key as the story of The New School: Remix Your Thoughts is being told by a cast that is from diverse ethnicities.

"We believe that everyone should see this play, regardless of race," said Deer. "If change is really going to occur in society, then everyone needs to be involved in making a difference."

To tell the story, engage the audiences and get the messages across effectively, the duo are using multimedia.

"We decided on a multimedia production to fully engage and entertain youth," Deer informed. "In order to capture this audience, we realised that we needed to add elements, including short movies, dance, and an interactive online mobile quiz that we created to articulate our message."

They have interwoven these multimedia elements to give the play a fresh perspective.

"We created videos that address cultural appropriation, interracial relationships, racial profiling and ancient and contemporary African history," said Pena. "This," she added, "challenges the often negative and stagnant rhetoric that surrounds African history teachings like slavery."

The duo came together in 2012, when Debbie asked Nicole to be the executive producer of her play, Exmas. This, they say, was the beginning of creative synergy. They have been working on various projects - film, marketing and theatrical production, including New School: Remix Your Thoughts.

"We are also working on video-production projects in Jamaica that highlight local cuisine and historical achievements," Deer, former first runner-up Miss Jamaica Universe, informed.

Nicole and Debbie are also planning on a nationwide tour for New School in Canada.

New School: Remix Your Thoughts, Deer and Pena say, is a journey that has been incredible for both. Toronto District School Board (TDSB), the second largest school board in North America, has been commissioned to present the play, enabling them to showcase and highlight the messages.

"Conceptualising the play was easy, as we are both critical and informed thinkers, who keep our fingers on the pulse," Deer said. "It's also been amazing watching ourselves and the cast grow as artists through this process."

"Likewise," Pena added, "the overwhelmingly positive feedback from administrators, TDSB school trustees, teachers and students, have been very fulfilling.

"We are delighted to have written and directed a play that resonates with youth culture," said Pena, who is a visual artist and an art teacher who has a travelling art school called Art Heroes. "As artists, it's important to be creative and we are proud."

But, they say, the scope of their audience is currently restricted, and they would like it to be a wider spectrum to make the desired impact - and critically, their message and showcase is pertinent, which, they strongly advocate, should be showcase beyond February.

"One of the biggest challenges that we face is that our play is only being presented in schools with high populations of black students," Deer said. "We firmly believe that our play should not be confined to black schools and February, as it contains universal concepts that promote inclusion."