As a Canadian living in Hong Kong in the late 1970s, I was regarded as a gweilo, a “white devil.” Even though I was a few inches taller than most Chinese, they would push me out of the way in the bus queue; refuse eye contact, and, when clearing their throats, they would often aim their spit at my feet. And when I visited Guangzhou, the people there would touch my hair, cock their heads, and stare. I was an outsider, and constantly reminded of that status.
For rural-dwelling Black Canadians, this sense of “otherness” likely isn’t as overt as what I experienced decades ago overseas, but it’s there, nonetheless, in the form of microaggressions or worse, simply as a result of being part of a visible micro-minority in a small community.
Because nearly all Black Canadians live in cities, the few residing in the countryside bear the stigma of uniqueness, straddling a line between acceptance and safety. The reward for this life choice is proximity to the natural world—a retreat from the plugged-in chaos of urban existence. A place to connect on a deeper level with all that is within oneself.
So, what’s it like to be a Black person living in rural Canada? Enter Shayna Jones. This storyteller of African and African diasporic folklore lives in Kaslo, British Columbia (pop. 1000). She and her family are among the handful of Black people who live there.
In 2020, Jones launched her Black and Rural research project to ask this same question of other Black Canadians living in and around small communities scattered across the country. She invited people to connect with her online and share their thoughts with her through words, art, photos, or video. Out of these emerged deep conversations with dozens of interviewees, a process Jones has described as “One story, one dignified connection at a time.”
From this research, Jones began to create a permanent online collection of words and images sharing the reflections, experiences, dreams, and desires of Black Canadians living in the countryside.
Her next step was to write a one-woman play incorporating the words and lived experiences of the people she interviewed, giving them a voice. This theatrical production—a powerful portrait of the trials, strength, and tenacity of contemporary rural Black Canadians—makes a stop in Courtenay in late April near the beginning of its Canadian tour.
Richard Wolfe, the acclaimed artistic director of Vancouver’s Pi Theatre Company, reached out to Jones to bring her project to the theatre in September 2021. “Her work interested me a lot, so I got in touch with her,” he says. “We spoke about what she was working on, and the Black and Rural project came up. She had seen work I’d done with Tetsuro Shigematsu on Empire of the Son and 1 Hour Photo, and liked what she’s seen, and our conversation went forward from there.”
Pi Theatre’s mandate is to produce work ‘that’s intellectually alive and emotionally charged,’ so this collaboration seemed very right,” he says. “We’re building it now and are excited to take it to audiences outside of large centres like Vancouver for obvious reasons.”
Jones is a compelling performance artist as well as a storyteller. Her character in the play brings to life the words and lived experiences of the people she interviewed, giving them a voice.
Across the great expanse of the Canadian landscape—from the forests of BC and across the sweeping plains to the steep cliffs of the Maritimes—there is a sense of belonging, being at home, that Black rural folks have created. It all takes form in this unforgettable performance.
See the stage production of Black and Rural Wednesday April 26 and Thursday, April 27, 2023, at the Sid Williams Theatre. For information or to purchase tickets, go to sidwilliamstheatre.com or call 250-338-2430.