Stage Door Review 2022

Things My Fore-Sisters Saw

Sunday, March 6, 2022


written and directed by Leslie McCurdy

Li’l Ol’ Me Productions, Theatre Orangeville, Orangeville

March 3-13, 2022

“This land is your land, this land is my land”

Leslie McCurdy premiered her solo play Things My Fore-Sisters Saw in 1999 and has been touring the show ever since. In only one hour McCurdy gives the audience a history of Canadians of African descent – a history that few, if any of the audience, will know anything about. McCurdy herself, an eighth-generation African-Canadian, was inspired to write the play because she realized that an entire side of Canadian history was being omitted in schools. McCurdy’s play has done an immense service to Canada filling in that gap. Though educating the audience is the play’s priority, the show is as entertaining as it is educational and should be required viewing for all Canadians.

McCurdy personalizes the history of African-Canadians through reference to her own growing up amid prejudice in Windsor, Ontario, and, more particularly, through her portraits of four outstanding Canadian women of African descent. These are Marie-Joseph Angélique (c.1705-1734), a slave from Montreal, whose testimony in court comprises the first slave narrative in North America; Rose Fortune (1774-1864) of Nova Scotia who is considered the first police-woman in North America; Mary Ann Shadd (1823-1893), the first North American woman to publish and edit a newspaper; and Viola Desmond (1914-1965), now pictured on the Canadian $10 bill, who, like the famous Rosa Parks after her, refused to give up a seat to segregation.

What will amaze audiences is that each of women accomplishes firsts not merely in Canada but in all of North America. In The case of Fortune and Shadd, these firsts are irrespective of race. the fact that the vast majority of us have never heard of these women is shameful. The fact that we learn about them from McCurdy is a joy.

The lives of each of these women are fascinating in themselves, but McCurdy also uses each to illustrate a point about the Black presence in Canada of which most people are unaware and that seldom received attention in school history lessons. The story of Marie-Joseph Angélique points out the truth that there was indeed slavery not merely in the colonies that would become the United States but also in those that would become Canada. Canada did not have a plantation economy as did the Southern colonies, but households in New France would have a slave or two to work along the paid servants of the house.

This was the case of Angélique, who was purchased by François Poulin de Francheville and was inherited by his wife upon his death. When Angélique asked the wife for her freedom as promised by the dead husband, the wife refused and Angélique told her, You will burn for this” and made several attempts to escape. When the merchants’ quarter of Montreal burnt down in 1734, these threats were remembered and she was named as the arsonist. Working from the latest sources McCurdy portrays Angélique as being framed for the crime which came with a sentence of being burnt at the stake. Upon appeal, Angélique’s sentence was lowered to merely being hanged. Although she confessed to the crime only when subject to a medieval form of torture, Angélique later became a symbol of the oppression of Black people and of their yearning for freedom.

With the example of Rose Fortune, McCurdy examines the fate of Black Loyalists. For fighting alongside the British in the American Revolution, they were promised freedom when they fled to Canada. This they received but little welcome or assistance in setting up a new life. Nevertheless, some, like Fortune, were able to become an independent businesswoman, in her case setting up a trade in “smashing baggage”, the slang phrase at the time (which McCurdy should explain) for transporting luggage to and from ships that arrived at Annapolis Royal in Nova Scotia. More than that, however, Fortune set and enforced curfews and maintained order at the docks, thus becoming the first woman involved in law enforcement in North America.

Mary Ann Shadd becomes an example of a Black Abolitionist in Canada. She established a racially integrated school in Sandwich (now Windsor), Ontario, but was opposed in this by the segregationists Henry and Mary Bibb, who ran their own newspaper. To to give voice to her own views and those of other Black Canadians, she set up, wrote and edited the The Provincial Freeman in 1838. In its pages she encouraged emigration to Canada based on stories of the success of free Black communities all across the country. As if that were not enough, she was also an early campaigner for women’s suffrage and was one of the first Black women to receive a law degree in North America.

People now know more about Viola Desmond than they did before 2018 when she first  graced the $10 bill. Some will now that Desmond fought segregation in Canada, but few will know the exact circumstances of the system she fought. While American states and cities had Jim Crow laws that enforced outright racial segregation, Canada had an unofficial system of segregation that was much harder to fight. “Freedom of commerce” laws allows individual businesses to refuse to serve any potential clients whom they thought would harm their trade, thus implicitly permitting the exclusion of people by race.

In New Glasgow, Nova Scotia, Desmond, a successful businesswoman, bought a ticket to see a movie and unwittingly sat in the White section of the cinema. When told to move she refused, and was eventually arrested and jailed. This occurred in 1946, nine years before Rosa Parks became famous in the US for refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a White person. Desmond appealed the charge against her nominally for “tax evasion” but despite the efforts of the Nova Scotian Black community to assist her, Desmond was unable to remove the charges against her and went unpardoned in her lifetime. Desmond’s refusal to accept an act of racial discrimination provided inspiration to later generations of Black persons in Nova Scotia and in the rest of Canada.

Leslie McCurdie presents the play on a stage that is bare except for a few key props. She changes into all the costumes she used while telling us the backgrounds of the four women. Once in costume, McCurdie transforms herself completely, adopting a distinct tone of voice, accent and gestural language for each of the four women. Angélique is cowed, frightened and yet furious as she tells her story. In complete contrast, Fortune combines jollity with forcefulness, surely the mixture that encouraged people to obey her enforcement of rules. Unlike the previous two, Shadd is proper, erudite and well spoken and trusts that reason and facts can overcome prejudice.

McCurdie’s presentation of Desmond is perhaps the most entertaining because instead of revealing her character through self-narration as do the previous three, McCurdy stages  the Desmond sequence as a press conference in which she reveals her story in answer to key questions planted among the ushers. This gives a liveliness to the scene that makes us all feel like witnesses to history.

McCurdy’s show in no way derives from the politics or grievance that than has come to dominate recent theatre. Some artists on becoming aware of the negative aspects of Canadian history have gone so far as to declare, “I’m ashamed to be a Canadian”.

This is not Leslie McCurdy. She thinks that Canadians should overcome their habitual reticence and shout out loud, as she does in the show, “I’m proud to be a Canadian!” McCurdy’s play has clearly shone a light on unsavoury corners of Canadian history and emphasized that Canadians are not as free from the sins of oppression and exclusion as they would like to believe. Yet, she says she is proud to be a Canadian because in all countries majority populations have dealt unfairly with their minority populations, but Canada, when it confronts these injustices attempts to acknowledge them and to repair the damage. That’s why, according to McCurdy, Canada appears at the top of so many lists of countries that are desirable places to live. (In fact, Canada has been ranked as the number one country in the world for six years in a row on the Best Countries Report, a project by US News & World Report and three global think tanks.)

Besides this, the purpose of Things My Fore-Sisters Saw is to reveal previous concealed history and celebrate four women whose lives helped improve the lives of those who followed. When McCurdie sings “This Land Is Your Land” at the close of the show, the familiar song sounds new. After the stories of the four remarkable Black women, the song becomes a joyous celebration of inclusivity.

Like her powerful singing voice, McCurdie has such a genial personality and such a commitment to her story that her energy fills the theatre and raises us up. McCurdie plans to tour Fore-Sisters only until 2027. This is the first chance I have had to see it and I wish I had seen it 20 years ago. I recommend it to everyone. It plays at Theatre Orangeville only until March 13. Where it goes after that is not yet known, so do really try to see it now.

Christopher Hoile

Photo: Composite of Leslie McCurdie as Marie-Joseph Angélique, Rose Fortune, Mary Ann Shadd and Viola Desmond. © Li’l Ol’ Me Productions.

For tickets visit