University of Guelph professor and author Lawrence Hill has fulfilled a long-time ambition to write for the stage with his new one-woman play, Sensitivity.
The new work is part of Obsidian Theatre Company’s 21 Black Futures and is available to stream on CBC Gem throughout 2021.
A professor of creative writing in U of G’s School of English and Theatre Studies, Hill is the best-selling author of 10 books, including the novels The Illegal and The Book of Negroes. He said he had thought about writing a play for years but was busy with other projects — until he got a special invitation.
“When Obsidian invited me to write this play, I just had to jump in,” said Hill.
Obsidian Theatre, a Toronto-based company, is dedicated to the exploration, development and production of Black voices, focused on the work of Black playwrights.
21 Black Futures, an anthology of 21 short, one-person plays, was conceived by Obsidian’s new artistic director Mumbi Tindyebwa Otu. Amid protests in 2020 against police brutality and the outcry over racism perpetuated against Black people, she began pondering the future of Blackness.
COVID-19 forced the cancellation of Obsidian’s live plays, but Tindyebwa Otu was compelled to offer a virtual theatre experience that addressed current struggles, as well as reflections on the future. 21 Black Futures was born, with 21 Black playwrights, including Hill, directed by 21 Black directors and performed by 21 Black actors. The series is a partnership with the CBC.
Hill’s play centres on the character Gabriaela Monk, a mid-career Black professional who pays a heavy toll for her advocacy for racial equality.
“It seems to me that racialized people are most commonly the ones drawn into fighting against racism and who are then judged and punished when the process goes off the rails,” Hill said.
The play enters Gabriaela’s state of mind moments after she is fired for leading a racial sensitivity training seminar that goes terribly wrong.
“One of the wonderful things about being a writer is that it has allowed me rich ways to engage with and be part of Black communities across this country and around the world,” Hill said. “We are all terribly isolated, in some respects, during the pandemic and in this long winter of our discontent. It felt like I was strengthening the bonds of family by joining Obsidian’s initiative.”
Hill said he not only loved the writing process but also enjoyed working with actor Sabryn Rock and director Mike Payette in virtual rehearsals.
An accomplished Canadian film and theatre actress, Rock has appeared in the television series Running with Violet, The Expanse and Black Mirror. Payette is a Montreal-based actor and director whose work includes Harlem Duet, A Line in the Sand and Another Home Invasion.
With the fight against anti-Black racism foremost for many, Hill said, he has watched hopefully as government, industry, non-profits and academia have stated their commitments to anti-racism.
“That is a good step, but it remains to be seen if, across Canada, we will see true changes and improvements in our deepest and most entrenched systems. Will we step closer to a world in which Black, Indigenous and people of colour are welcomed, respected, encouraged and given a fair shake? I do hope so.”
As part of its commitment to anti-racism, U of G has established the president’s advisory committee on anti-racism. Hill, who co-chairs the committee with University president Dr. Charlotte Yates, said, “I feel a responsibility to do my part in my own backyard.”
Hill hopes to expand Sensitivity into a full-length play next year.