En route to Heaven (and Alberta’s Black history), live at the Citadel: meet star Helen Belay

Helen Belay in Heaven, Citadel Theatre. Photo by Janice Saxon.

By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca

Getting to Heaven was “a long, winding journey,” says Helen Belay.

Belay is not only the star of the Cheryl Foggo play of that name starting its live run on the Citadel’s Shoctor stage Saturday. But getting to Heaven was her choice, the result of her quest, as a member of the trio of BIPOC Citadel artistic associates appointed this past year, to find  “a story we thought needed telling…. In my brain, my northern star was the question of what black folk need right now, a story that will feed us.”

“We all deserve a simple true human story, an honest reminder of our own humanity.”

Edmonton audiences have seen the multi-talented Belay in such high-contrast productions as the Teatro La Quindicina screwball Vidalia, the black comedy The Society for the Destitute Present Titus Bouffonius at Theatre Network, and the dark prairie drama The Blue Hour at the SkirtsAfire Festival. In Heaven we meet Belay as Charlotte, a spirited young Black woman in the 1920s who arrives from Ontario to be a teacher in Amber Valley in Alberta.

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Amber Valley: that settlement of Black pioneers, former slaves who’d fled escalating racial violence south of the border in the late 19th and early 20th century, is a shamingly little known and untaught part of our shared Canadian history. It figures prominently in playwright/historian Foggo’s own cross-border family story of the early 1900s, as she told 12thnight in 2017 when Workshop West was producing her play John Ware Reimagined.

And, “although very different in its particulars,” as Belay points out, the story has powerful parallels to the narrative of her own family. She is the child of Ethiopian immigrants (her father is a research scientist) who arrived here, via England, as “people looking for a better life, who put their faith in the unknown” when conditions became insupportable.

Belay, a U of A theatre school grad, knew about Amber Valley and its population of refugees from working as a historical interpreter on 1920 Street at Fort Edmonton Park. She made up a character to play, one Zelda Dupuis, “who was either a proud city gal or a kind-hearted rural woman, depending on the day”). “We weren’t at the point yet when we were talking about ‘diverse narratives’,” she says. “But it (i.e. Alberta’s Black history) just didn’t come up; that’s what I noticed.”

“I began to feel this sense of dissonance…. I’d be teaching this history, and people would come up to me, innocently, and say ‘you’re great but I was just wondering ‘would you be here?’. And I didn’t have an answer. And that bothered me.”  The question they were asking, of course, was about the presence of a Black person in Alberta in 1920.

And what Belay remembers vividly from her researches about Amber Valley was “being profoundly moved by the story of these people…. I’d become really fixed on sharing this history. And so to find this play, by an incredible artist, was mind-blowing; it felt like a gift from above.”

As a storyteller, “I love history…. How can you know where you’re going if you don’t know where we’re coming from.” What she’s learned from studying history, she says, is that “there’s always an exception to what we think is true. And the exception is almost always bigger than we think….” If we assume a certain time and place was only populated by white men, well, think again. That white-centric view of the past is sustained by “the people doing the researching, the writing, the recording.”

The love story of Heaven, its setting in Amber Valley, the Citadel production directed by Patricia Darbasie, all gain  resonance in the context of the pandemic year with Black Lives Matter, and ongoing reassessments of diversity and access within the theatre industry itself.

“It feels like we’re all collectively thinking about diversity with a bit more courage, I think,” says Belay. “These discussions, hard but so necessary, do discomfit a lot of people…. I’ve had the experience of bringing things up, and watching people shut down.” Now they’re more apt to “attempt to actively engage,” she’s found.

“In my life, sometimes, I’ve been made to feel that my Blackness and what I bring to the table are two separate things. Blackness as something to be fixed, something to be worked around. People just not knowing what to do with it.”

“People wanting so badly to make me feel equal and included. But it’s just awkward. That hasn’t shifted,” Belay thinks. But people are more able these days to “accept that awkwardness as a gift…. As a working actor, I’m lucky. It’s seen — without my prompting — as broadening discussion. Instead of something to be navigated around, it’s like an added element.”

“I don’t go through the work reminding myself of my own racial identity. It’s life that reminds me….”

“How we portray people is really powerful,” Belay says, of her love of theatre. “And it’s important for people to see not only themselves but other people…. Who was it who said ‘theatre is like a gym for your sense of empathy’? There’s a real opportunity to feel understood, or to understand a bit more about the world. And that is transformative!”

Not only have Belay and her fellow artistic associates Mieko Ouchi and Tai Amy Grauman each chosen a play, “a story we felt needed telling,” for the Citadel’s Horizon Series (the others are Mary’s Wedding and A Brimful of Asha), but they’ve highlighted mentorship (the RBC Horizon Emerging Artist Program) for artists. And her time at the Citadel has given her a new appreciation of “the meticulous work that goes into planning a season,” and sowing seeds for long-term change. “I was privileged and lucky to be working with a bevy of really generous people who received the events of last year … and said ‘how do we make this better?’ I really have felt welcome, and listened to….”

It took months of sleuthing, Belay says, to come up with Heaven, the play (first produced at Calgary’s Lunchbox Theatre two decades ago) that met her particular requirements.  Not one of the ever-increasing archive of contemporary plays about about radicalized trauma, “important though they are,” but “a story of love and light and hope.” Heaven, she says, has its political edges to be sure, but it’s “more  true to my lived experience as a Black person.” She cites the assistance of such artists as playwright Donna-Michelle St. Bernard and Brian Quirt of the Banff Centre Playwrights Lab in exploring possible choices en route to Heaven.

Charlotte, the teacher who comes west to Amber Valley, is a role to cherish, says Belay. “She’s young and feisty and smart. Very strong-willed. She’s trouble! Quite the firecracker. I’m enjoying her, a lot.”

“She’s educated; she’s opinionated. She hasn’t seen the kind of active racial hatred that made the settlers in Amber Valley leave home…. And you get a glimpse of the diversity within the Black community itself.”

PREVIEW

Heaven

Theatre: Citadel

Written by: Cheryl Foggo

Directed by: Patricia Darbasie

Starring: Helen Belay, Anthony Santiago

Running: Saturday through Aug. 15

Tickets: 100 per performance in the 681-seat Shoctor Theatre. Available at citadeltheatre.com or 780-425-1820.

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