The Saint John Theatre Company’s production We Were Here, created and directed by Clyde A. Wray, shines a light on legendary Black community members. Eight local actors are taking on the roles of historical figures from Saint John and beyond. Their names may be lesser-known, but their stories have shaped the city.
Timothy Christie is the regional director of ethics services for Horizon Health Network in New Brunswick. In this personal essay, he reflects on his role in We Were Here.
Although Abraham Beverley Walker (1851-1909) was the first Canadian-born Black lawyer. Anti-black racism guaranteed he was denied justice for more than a century after his death. He spent his entire career trying to reason with people and “a system” that were deeply racist.
Through my portrayal of him, I want to convey his anguish and vexation. He was incredulous because of the absurdity of everything regarding anti-black racism. In the play, Walker is characterized as stoic, dogmatic and defiant. He could not believe that people would overlook his accomplishments because of something as extraneous as his skin colour. I want people to understand just how indignant he really was.
Walker’s grandfather was a runaway slave and his parents were farmers near the Kingston Peninsula, which is just outside of Saint John. Despite his under privileged beginnings and the systemic denial of any form of equality, he went on to study law at the National University in Washington D.C., and become the first Black Canadian-born lawyer.
While being well-travelled and lecturing throughout North America, Walker spent most of his life battling racism in Saint John. From my studies of his life, I think that his most heart-breaking experience of injustice was not being awarded the title Queen’s Counsel. This designation is used to recognize the contribution of senior lawyers in the profession. The following is a quotation from Walker himself after not receiving this honour:
“[T]hey appointed Barristers who had as a matter of fact left the practice of law altogether. In one instance [Coster & Coster] they appointed a whole firm and family of Barristers. … I was left off simply because I was a colored man and nothing else.”
It wasn’t until 2019 that a local historian, Peter Little, compiled the remaining scant information about Walker and eventually got him awarded the Order of New Brunswick. Likewise, it is only now, in 2021, that Mr. Clyde Wray is exposing the racism of our history books through his production We Were Here.
Personally, I have never acted before. I’m an academic and I am comfortable presenting to large groups of people. This comfort, however, comes from the fact that I’m the subject matter expert, which shields me against any insecurities.
Portraying Abraham Beverly Walker is an entirely different endeavour. Walker is a giant among men, and I feel the pressure of getting his character right. I must abandon myself and make people think that they’re watching Abraham Beverley Walker.
My saving grace is that I completely agree with Walker. Racism is fundamentally irrational and its continued existence defies all logic. If you take nothing else from my performance, my message is that Walker was centuries ahead of the rest of us. All of us should be as indignant as he — at the continued existence of racism.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.