Sun | May 28, 2023

Actor-turn-director Marcel Stewart to explore C’bean mythology in new series

Published:Saturday | February 4, 2023 | 12:31 AMNeil Armstrong/Gleaner Writer


Until a few years ago, the only thing Marcel Stewart was interested in was being on stage. But then the COVID-19 pandemic struck and he has re-examined his acting career, turning to direct productions.

In 2021, Stewart directed the podcast play Toronto Pigeons (Factory Theatre); the digital play Meet Chloe (Carousel Players), and the live theatre production of Serving Elizabeth (Thousand Islands Playhouse).

Now, he is the director of The Flight, a play written and performed by Beryl Bain, which opens at the Factory Theatre in Toronto on February 10.

It explores the life of aviation pioneer Bessie Coleman, the first African-American woman and the first Native American to hold an international pilot’s licence.

Stewart said he approached the directing with a degree of care and awareness to honour Coleman’s story and allow Bain to tell the story that she felt was important and necessary.

When Bain asked him to direct her one-woman play, Stewart requested an assistant director, a black woman who could comment on Bain’s embodiment of Coleman, to share a different perspective.

“That’s been really helpful and useful in the rehearsals, always having Emerjade Simms, the assistant director, be in the space,” said Stewart. He said this was particularly special as the two share a kindred bond of having immigrant parents who were from Jamaica and who emigrated to the UK as part of the Windrush generation.

But the shift to directing has not been abrupt, as he has been preparing for the role.

In 2019, Stewart participated in a training enhancement programme at the Factory Theatre with then-artistic director Nina Lee Aquino to learn directing. He would later direct his first audio play in January 2021, then a digital play, and then a live production.

“I’ve always been intrigued by one-person shows and stand-up comedy and the ability of a performer to just tell a story to an audience for 40 minutes, 50 minutes, an hour, and be engaging.”

Currently, Stewart is developing an immersive audio theatrical series, loosely based on his father’s life in Jamaica, which weaves together themes of home, grief, family, and the influence of Caribbean mythology. His mother is from Savanna-la-Mar, Westmoreland, and his father is from Richmond Gap, St. Thomas. They migrated to Britain from Jamaica and eventually made their way to Canada in 1990.

The actor, who has always had a fractured relationship with his father, decided to leave acting in Toronto and move into his father’s house in Niagara-on-the-Lake to ‘find himself’.

“I was interested in trying to understand where I came from in order to figure out where I wanted to go. I remember I just sat down with him and asked him a bunch of questions.”

He interviewed his father about his earliest memories of life in Jamaica through to when he left the island for England.

A stand-out from their conversation was his father’s recollection of a story about being a child fetching water from a well and the warning he got about a nearby area where people would simply ‘disappear’. “And here he is, 64 (years old) telling me this story and he’s still getting chills about it.”

Stewart is interested in Caribbean mythology including local accounts of rolling calf, River Mumma, Anancy, and other figures of Caribbean folklore, where they came from, and how they still live in the spirit, body, and mind of people.

He connects that moment to one in which he accompanied his mother to see Trey Anthony’s play, How Black Mothers Say I Love You, in 2016. Afterward, she encouraged him to write a play about how Black Fathers Say I love You. This was a deeply personal issue for him.

Stewart said he ‘can count on his hands’ how many times his father has said that.

The suggestion has triggered other ideas for plays that would resonate with black audiences like, the relationship that fathers have with their sons, migrant experiences, and the general theme of remittances, its role, and significance in black communities.

Stewart envisions giving people their own headsets and having them walk through an art gallery of paintings of Jamaican landscapes listening to this story, not a traditional theatre piece.

He said what drew him to the theatre was the ‘liveness’ of it and the way that Caribbean people tell stories. “They’re very eccentric and outgoing and loud,” he stated.

When he is not creating theatre, Stewart is an arts educator who has facilitated programming to community youth groups, professional actors, students in university, high school, and elementary. He has taught theatre performance to students at Brock University and Carleton University. Artistic director of the current performing arts and artistic associate for Spider Web Show Performance, he is also a new father.