Canada is well-known for its multiculturalism and has garnered an image as more of a mosaic country where different ethnic groups can maintain their individuality while still functioning as part of a whole. Canada’s history with the arts and specifically theatre is long and is full of many theatre directors throughout its history. Unfortunately, despite Canada’s image, it wasn’t until relatively recently that many directors of colour began to take the spotlight, bringing new and wonderful stories to the stage. These directors have done many things for the theatre company from bringing new works to the stage, to reimagining a classic play, to fighting for more representation both on and off stage.
10. Donna Yamamoto
Donna Yamamoto was born in August 1962 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. She is known for her illustrious acting career. She is known for her roles in Deadpool, 50/50, and Streetfighter: The Animated Series. Yamamoto also received the Vancouver Now Representation and Inclusion Award for displaying dedication and leadership to building inclusivity within the theatre industry in Vancouver. She has recently retired from being the Artistic Director of the Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre (vACT) after nine years. During her time there she produced the show Empire of the Son. While she was the Artistic Director of the vACT she was constantly pushing for more and better diversity within Theatre.
9. Quincy Armorer
Quincy Armorer is an actor, director, instructor and admin. In his acting career he has been in the Stratford Festival, the National Arts Center, Centaur Theatre, Black Theatre Workshop, St. Lawrence Shakespeare Festival, Geordie Productions, Repercussion and many more. Armorer studied at the Concordia University (Montreal) where he studied in the Theatre Department, he also studied at the Birmingham Conservatory for Classical Theatre at the Stratford Festival. Then in the 2005-06 season, he was the Associate Artistic Director of Black Theatre Workshop, he was then named the Artistic Director in 2011. He is currently stepping down.
8. Djanet Sears
Djanet Sears is a Toronto-based playwright, director and actor. Sears was born in London, England 1959. She moved to Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada at 15 with her family. She eventually settled in Oakville in 1975. Sears’ work Arika Solo (Factory Theatre, 1989) had won her national and international attention. The show was produced for CBC Radio in 1990, and it was published by Sister Vision Press. Because of Afrika Solo, Sears was the first African-Canadian to get her play published. She is also the writer of Harlem Duet, a play commonly referenced as Othello’s prelude. It follows the story of Othello and his first wife, Billie, through the lives of three different couples all living during a significant time in the Balck American Experience. Harlem Duet which Sears wrote and directed won her multiple Dora awards in 1997 such as Best Play Play and Best Directing. Sears is continuously trying to push for more opportunities for Black creatives and artists. Djanet Sears is also a founding member of Obsidian Theatre.
7. Ravi Jain
Ravi Jain is also a Toronto-based playwright, actor and director. Jain went to Upper Canada College and studied at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art, New York Tisch School of the Arts, and the Jacques Lecoq school in Paris. He is the founding member and Artistic Director of Why Not Theatre. He has directed a production of Salt-Water Moon at Factory Theatre in 2016, which awarded him a Dora Mavor Moore Award for direction. In the same year, he directed a production of Lisa Codringtons’s adaptation of Bernard Shaw’s story, The Adventures of the Black Girl in Her Search for God for the Shaw Festival. He has written a few of his plays own, such as A Brimful of Asha, which is a play he wrote with his mother, who is named Asha, based on real events from Jain’s life. It was remounted in 2013 after critical acclaim, it ended up touring in Canada and abroad. He was shortlisted twice for the Siminovitch Prize in 2016 and 2019, he has won the Pauline McGibbon Award for Emerging Director (2012), and also won the Canada Council John Hirsch Prize for Direction in 2016.
6. Mike Payette
Mike Payette is an actor and a director. He is from Montreal, Quebec, Canada. His work has been performed in theatres like the Citadel Theatre, Manitoba Theatre for Young People, Vertigo Theatre, Banff Centre, The Grand Theatre, Factory Theatre, Neptune Theatre and the National Arts Center. He has directed many plays including; Harlem Duet, A Line in the Sand and Another Home Invasion, Hosanna and Choir Boy, Around the World in 80 Days. Payette has won the Montreal English Theatre Award (META) twice. Mike Payette has been an Artistic Director for many theatre companies including Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, which he also co-founded. He was the Artistic and Executive Director of Geordie Productions, which is one of Canada’s leading theatres for young audiences companies. He was also the Assistant Artistic Director for Black Theatre Workshop where he directed Harlem Duet. Currently, Payette is the Artistic Director of Tarragon Theatre.
5. Weyni Mengesha
Mengesha is a phenomenal director for both theatre and film who is always pushing for more representation on stage and directs a lot of culturally specific shows. Weyni Mengesha grew up in Scarborough, Toronto, Canada. Mengesha is the Artistic Director for Soulpepper Theatre in Toronto and has a drive for fighting against racism within the theatre world. Her directing has won her many awards in New York (Drama League), Los Angeles (Drama Critics Circle), and has been nominated for the Outstanding Direction Dora Award five times, winning once. She has directed culturally specific plays such as Kim’s Convenience which focuses on the Asian-Canadian experience, and da Kink in my Hair, which tells the stories of Black women in Toronto both the joys and hardships of their lives. Both shows have toured nationally and internationally and also ended up becoming shows on CBC, Global and Netflix. Mengesha is also an instructor at the National Theatre School in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. In the past, Mengesha was the co-artistic director and teacher at The Artists Mentoring Youth Project for 7 years. In 2018, she was named one of the 50 most influential people in Toronto by Toronto Life Magazine.
4. Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu
Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu was raised in Kenya and Victorio, British Columbia, Canada. Otu is another Toronto-based director. She graduated from Soulpepper Academy, York University and the University of Toronto, and Obsidian Theatre’s Mentor/Apprenticeship Program. She currently is the Artistic Director of Obsidian Theatre, she was also the founder and Artistic Director of IFT Theatre, (It’s A Freedom Thing Theatre) which is an experimental theatre company. For her directing she has won many awards such as the Dora Award for Outstanding Direction for The Brothers Size, she received a Toronto Theatre Critics Award, Artistic Director’s Award for Soulpepper, Pauline McGibbon Award, a Mallory Gilbert Protege Award, a Harold Award, twice nominated for the John Hirsch Directing Awards. Some productions she had done for Soulpepper are; Oraltorio: A Theatrical Mixtape, Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The 27 Club, and Porgy and Bess. For other theatres she has directed; Motherland, Nightmare Dream, Dancing to A White Boy Song, Just me, and You and The Silence (IFT Theatre). She is also known for directing and Assistant Directing projects for the Stratford Festival, Canadian Stage, Obsidian Theatre, and Volcano Theatre. She, along with many others, is fighting for more opportunities for Black artists and creatives, stating in an interview with Now Toronto, “I want to see that it’s not just a seasonal thing, that it goes beyond tokenism – a real desire to engage continuously in the richness of who we are, even after it stops being convenient.” (Now Toronto 2021).
3. Philip Akin
Philip Akin is an actor and director born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1950. He and his family moved to Oshawa, Ontario, Canada when he was five. In 1975 he became the first graduate of Ryerson’s acting program. After a successful acting career, Akin began directing. He has been instrumental to the Black communities within the theatre industry in Canada. He is a founding member of Obsidian Theatre, a company that’s dedicated to work made by and for Black people. In 2012, he was awarded the Dora Mavor Moore Award for Outstanding Direction of a Play/Musical for his production of Suzane-Lori Parks; Topdog/Underdog. He became the director of the Shaw Festival’s production of Trouble in Mind in 2020. Not only is he a phenomenal director, but he has also done so much to support Black artists, creating funds and scholarships. Helping out whenever he can. Akin has recently retired from being the Artistic Director of Obsidian Theatre.
2. Soheil Parsa
Soheil Parsa was born in Iran, 1954. He studied theatre performance at the University of Tehran, Iran, he later arrived in Canada in 1984. He then completed his Bachelor of Arts in theatre studies at York University. Since the beginning of his directing career, Parsa has had a very successful and distinct directing style. He chooses to be simplistic with props, set, and costumes – keeping the focus on the actors and the story. He mixes elements of Iranian and Western styles in his productions. His adaptation of Macbeth was very innovative. He mixed the very well-known western play with the context of ta’ziyeh, which is a style of Iranian theatre. Another interesting twist was that there was no blood and no swords, each character had a coloured scarf and when a character died their scarf was taken away. This change in approach to such a well-known piece as Macbeth was a slight risk, but with Parsa’s skill and passion it worked out extremely well. Parsa has diversified what audiences see as he has introduced a lot of Iranian plays to Canadian audiences. He is a six-time Dora Award Winner, four for Outstanding Direction and two for Outstanding New Play with co-translator/adaptor Peter Farbridge. His company, Modern Times, has received forty Dora Awards nominations and sixteen awards under Parsa’s direction.
1. Nina Lee Aquino
Nina Lee Aquino is a Filipina-Canadian playwright, dramaturg, actor and director. Aquino was the founding member and Artistic Director of the fu-GEN Asian-Canadian Theatre Company from 2002 to 2009, which is a company, according to their Who We Are page, dedicated to developing “professional Asian Canadian theatre artists through the production of new and established works.” (fu-GEN Theatre. n.d). Later on, she became the Artistic Director of Cahoots Theatre Projects from 2009 to 2012. In 2010, she organized the first conference with and for Asian-Canadian theatre professionals. Nina is committed to creating a more diverse theatre community within Canada. She has recently been appointed the Artistic Director of the National Arts Centre English Theatre in Ottawa. She has received many awards for directing such as; the Ken McDougall Award for directing (2004), the Canada Council John Hirsch Prize (2008), and awarded three Dora Mavor Moore Awards for Outstanding Direction, for a paper series by David Yee (2011). Nina has played an integral part in shifting representation in Toronto theatre to be more diverse and multicultural and plans to continue to do so in her new role at the National Arts Centre English Theatre.
That concludes the list of the 10 best Canadian theatre directors of colour. People of colour have had to push past multiple barriers set against them, fight for their representation and shout for their voices to be heard. As more and more opportunities are being given to people of colour within the theatre industry, the more the theatre world will evolve and grow. Stories will be shared from multiple perspectives, new approaches and philosophies will be displayed, a richer and more diverse community will be leading the industry. I am sure with the work being put in now, the next few generations will have more Canadian theatre professionals that look like them, and more people to tell their stories.
Fu-GEN Theatre. n.d. https://www.fu-gen.org/
Now Toronto. 2021. “Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu, artistic director of Obsidian Theatre.” Last modified February 4.