Pancouver-Logo

Become a Cultural Navigator

Become a Cultural Navigator

Firehall Arts Centre’s Donna Spencer demonstrates true meaning of allyship

Firehall Arts Centre artistic producer Donna Spencer.
This year, Firehall Arts Centre artistic producer Donna Spencer was honoured by Lieut.-Gov. Janet Austin. Photo by Teresa Trovato.

Something unusual occurred in the Vancouver arts community as the Black Lives Matter movement gathered momentum in 2020.

In the wake of the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd, one organization after another issued statements expressing a commitment to diversity. Some expressed regret over their failure to adequately take this into account in the past.

But a few Vancouver arts organizations’ admirable records had already stood the test of time. The Firehall Arts Centre, headed by Donna Spencer, is definitely a standout.

In a phone interview, Spencer shares some of her memories as the Firehall moves forward on its 40th season.

“Certainly, at the time that we started working with diverse artists and Indigenous artists, there were very few companies in Canada that were doing it,” Spencer says.

In 1985, Spencer cast Jay Ono in Kennedy’s Children. She also directed Robert Patrick’s play about five people talking in a bar a decade after the JFK assassination.

The following year, she adapted Daphne Marlatt and Carole Itter’s landmark book, Opening Doors: In Vancouver’s East End: Strathcona. It’s an oral history of the neighbourhood that housed the city’s historic Black community in Hogan’s Alley.

Spencer directed the production, which also featured Ono. In addition, she cast future theatre professor Christine Menzies, who was born in Trinidad and Tobago, and future Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre artistic director Donna Yamamoto.

Firehall greenlit Yellow Fever

Spencer points out that in those days, opera directors would practise colour-blind casting. But in theatre, no one else, apart from the Firehall Arts Centre, was doing this.

She acknowledges it was challenging finding plays written in the early to mid 1980s from the perspective of an African American or African Canadian.

In 1988, the Firehall Arts Centre produced R.A. Shiomi’s Yellow Fever, a landmark in the history of Asian Canadian performing arts. Directed by Spencer, it revolves around a private eye of Japanese ancestry, Sam Shikaze, set in the Powell Street neighbourhood. This area was home to so many Japanese Canadians before the Canadian government confiscated their assets and interned them during the Second World War.

“How it really connects to Japanese Canadian history is that the Japanese Canadians for so long have been outsiders,” Shiomi told the Georgia Straight last year. “So that outsider detective character becomes a classic reflection of that experience, in a sense.”

Looking at the history of Firehall productions on its website, there are so many more examples in the 1980s and 1990s in which Spencer embraced diversity and opened doors for others.

There was Shiomi’s Rosie’s Café (1989), followed by Peter Colley’s I’ll Be Back Before Midnight (1990), which included an entirely nonwhite cast (Ono, Alvin Sanders, Veena Sood, and Yamamoto).

Many more plays offering diverse perspectives followed in the 1990s, such as George C. Wolfe’s The Coloured Museum, David Henry Hwang’s O.B. (Fresh Off the Boat), and George Ryga’s The Ecstasy of Rita Joe.

Works by Carmen Aguirre (Chile con Carne), Marty Chan (Mom, Dad, I’m Leaving With a White Girl), and Betty Quan (Mother Tongue) also appeared at the Firehall in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

“One of the first times a trilingual play was on-stage was when we did Betty Quan’s play—sign language, Cantonese, and English,” Spencer recalls. “People went, ‘Oh, we hadn’t really thought of that.’ So yeah, I’ve had a lot of really good experiences.”

Firehall Theatre
The building housing the Firehall Theatre was Vancouver’s first fire station.

Indigenous works featured

This was also a decade in which Spencer encouraged productions of Indigenous-written plays. Drew Hayden Taylor’s Someday (1995), Only Drunks and Children Tell the Truth (1997), and AlterNatives (1999) are three examples.

The latter actually led to a bomb threat. “There’s a lot of racism in the world,” Spencer notes.

Métis writer Marie Humber Clements’s Age of Iron was another of the plays produced by the Firehall in the 1990s.

It was a similar story in the first decade of the 2000s, which featured a remounting of The Ecstasy of Rita Joe, Clements’s The Unnatural and Accidental Women and Tomson Highway’s Ernestine Shuswap Gets Her Trout. Several plays in that era also had Indigenous directors.

Spencer credits Coast Salish playwright, actor, and photographer Columpa Bobb for offering valuable guidance over so many years. Bobb is the daughter of writer Lee Maracle and the great granddaughter of famed actor Chief Dan George.

“She started working here when she was 18,” Spencer says. “She has a really good take on how Indigenous stories could be told in the theatre—and could be told in formats that may be a combination of the western form of drama and oral storytelling.

“So, we’re exploring some of that through some of the work we’re going to be doing,” she adds.

Yukiko and Chiune Sugihara
Chiune Sugihara and his wife Yukiko were in Lithuania in 1940 when European Jews faced grave risks from the Nazis.

Courage Now follows in Firehall tradition

The Firehall Arts Centre will soon premiere Courage Now in partnership with Vancouver Asian Canadian Theatre. In it, Vancouver actor and playwright Manami Hara tells the story of a Japanese diplomat, Chiune Sugihara, who saved thousands of Jewish lives in Lithuania in 1940.

It has many of the markings of a Firehall show, addressing injustice and offering historical context to help audience members better understand the present.

As for issuing pronouncements about embracing different perspectives, the Firehall’s longtime artistic producer says she’s not opposed to doing this.

“I think statements like that are really important,” Spencer says. “But I also think it’s really important that if you’re making statements like that, that you’re actually doing something about it.

“And I think social media has become a place where people can make statements without actually thinking about all the things that go under that statement,” she continues. “It’s kind of like a joiners club.”

Spencer, on the other hand, doesn’t really need to issue statements. Her actions have spoken more loudly than anything she could declare on Facebook. And she did this long before Facebook even existed.

Follow Charlie Smith on Twitter @charliesmithvcr. Follow Pancouver on Twitter @PancouverMedia.

Take Action Now

Pancouver fuels creativity and promotes a more inclusive society. You can contribute to support our mission of shining a spotlight on diverse artists. Donations from within Canada qualify for a tax receipt.

Share this article

Charlie Smith

Charlie Smith

Pancouver editor Charlie Smith has worked as a Vancouver journalist in print, radio, and television for more than three decades.

Subscribe

Tags

Related Articles

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam Indian Band), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish Nation), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh Nation). With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.

The Society of We Are Canadians Too created Pancouver to foster greater appreciation for underrepresented artistic communities. A rising tide of understanding lifts all of us.

© 2023 The Society of We Are Canadians Too Privacy Policy | Terms and Conditions

We would like to acknowledge that we are gathered on the traditional and unceded territories of the Coast Salish peoples of the xʷməθkwəy̓əm (Musqueam), Skwxwú7mesh (Squamish), and Səl̓ílwətaɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. With this acknowledgement, we thank the Indigenous peoples who still live on and care for this land.