Stage Door News

Stratford: The Stratford Festival opens its 2021 season with a cabaret celebrating Black musical theatre

Friday, July 9, 2021

In some ways, the Stratford Festival will be returning to its roots next week when this year’s season opens under a canopy reminiscent of the tent that sheltered the company’s first production in 1953.

A big Shakespearean production will not launch the Festival in 2021. Instead, a celebration of Black musical theatre directed and curated by singer and actor Marcus Nance will get the Festival underway on its 68th anniversary July 13.

“I think it’s quite an honour,” Nance said Friday. “Especially after we’ve been through this emotional conversation about Black lives mattering, and about George Floyd, and about inclusion, I think it’s kind of a wonderful way to start out the season.”

The show is called Why We Tell the Story. It features music from the African American musical theatre canon, including hits from Aida, Ain’t Misbehavin’, The Color Purple, Hamilton, and many others, as well as poetry from influential American writers and activists Maya Angelou and Langston Hughes.

The show has been adapted from a similar concert performed during a Meighen Forum event in 2019 and allows Nance, a bass-baritone who’s been with the Festival for 10 seasons, to highlight musicals about Black experiences he believes aren’t being produced often enough.

“All of these shows need to have a place in our theatres, and I just don’t see them,” he said. “I didn’t know what the excuses are for them not being done, but I thought, ‘you know what, I have this platform that the Festival has given me so we’re going to have these songs heard.’”

Joining Nance for the cabaret are vocalists Neema Bickersteth, Robert Markus and Vanessa Sears.

Together, the group offers an eclectic mix of ranges and that’s by design, Nance said. Bickersteth is a soprano, Markus is a tenor and Sears is a “great belter” that “can do everything.”

“It was very important to me to have four incredibly different voices,” Nance added. “I wanted the audience not to be bored with one sound, so they will (hear) four totally different singers.”

Each performer will have an opportunity to solo, but the group will also sing together. 

In rehearsals this week, the quartet has been separated by clear barriers for physical distancing.

“There are lots of health protocols, so we’re trying to just figure out exactly how to deal with the audience and singers and keeping everybody safe,” Nance said. “But it’s a joy. We are just happy more than anything else to just be singing and to have an audience and be hearing applause.”

The cabaret’s music director, Franklin Brasz, will play keyboard in a band that includes guitarist Kevin Ramessar, bassist Jon Maharaj, and drummer-orchestra supervisor Dale-Ann Brendon.

Besides the barriers, Nance said the Festival Theatre canopy has brought its own element to the show, especially the outdoor lightning. The cabaret will open Tuesday at 7 p.m. and upcoming performances are also scheduled at 11 a.m. and 3 p.m., which means dim lighting is nearly impossible.

The unpredictable conditions did make a great scene during a recent performance for Festival staff. Nance said a song by Sears benefited from cloud cover that parted during a sunset this week, an element he wishes he could capture.

At this point though, nearly a year-and-a-half after last year’s season was cancelled entirely, Nance seems comfortable leaving some creative decisions up to Mother Nature.

“We’re just happy to be performing,” Nance said. “We will perform in a tent or in a closet. As long as we’re able to do what it is we were born to do, we will be happy.”


What: Why We Tell the Story, a celebration of Black musical theatre

When: July 10 – July 21 | Opening July 13

Where: Festival Theatre canopy, 55 Queen St.

Tickets: Available to the public starting Monday at or 1.800.567.1600

By Chris Montanini for

Photo: Marcus Nance, Robert Markus and Vanessa Sears in Why We Tell the Story. © 2021 David Hou.