'We always have more work to do': Windsor theatre group strives to see more diversity on and off stage

Cast and crew for the production of Memphis are deep into rehearsals right now — and for many, it's their first show.

The group comes from a range of ethnic backgrounds which was the goal for Arts Collective Theatre (ACT) — the theatre group behind the production.

Moya McAlister, vice-president and marketing manager of ACT, moved to Windsor from Toronto approximately 15 years ago.

"It was really strange for me to come to Windsor and not see diversity, because I didn't grow up with that. That's not what I knew, but I was like, 'No, there's a lot of people here and I know the talents here, so why aren't we seeing this?'"

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She said ACT reached out to the community by visiting different organizations in the city to seek out multi-ethnic talent.

The cast and crew behind Memphis is a result of that hard work — some performers are international students and the show's lead, producer and choreographer are all black.

"It makes me so happy," said Jolie Katimbo, the choreographer and a performer on the show. "Sometimes it makes me cry because I didn't think I'd be here."

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Katimbo, who was born in the Democratic Republic of Congo, said she faced discrimination for years as a performer because of her skin colour, but the lack of opportunities available in the theatre community didn't discourage her from pursuing a career in it.

"I like to celebrate my background and that's a big part of why I like to celebrate Black History Month," she said.

"It's not just to remember all the sad parts, but it's also to remember all the achievements that we've accomplished as just a race. As black people, just going through so much. I was raised in a war zone and being here now, choreographing for big companies. This is a really good feeling."

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Katimbo said it's a privilege to be doing the work she does, while encouraging others to embrace their differences. She added that the diversity of the cast and crew of the production is an anomaly.

"We still have a lot of work to get done. We still have a lot of things to accomplish just as races mixing and just getting along artistically," she said. 

"Some people don't really like when I put little African salt in my movements, but I'm like, 'Hey, that's who I am.' ... I want to express that and give that to people."

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McAlister echoed the same sentiment, but said she's seeing progress in the theatre community when it comes to representation.

"I think it's getting better," she said. "I mean, we always have more work to do, but I love the fact that theatre companies and directors are stepping out of their comfort zones and opening it up [so] anyone can be any part in any show"

Chris Rabideau, the director of the show, said despite Memphis being set in the 1950s, the show will resonate with audiences today.

We still have a lot of things to accomplish, just as races mixing and just getting along artistically. - Jolie Katimbo, Choreographer and Performer, Arts Collective Theatre

"If you look at the world, what's happening with the world, we're in upheaval. And yet, shows like Memphis tell us a story of love and how we can pursue our dreams and move forward together as a nation and as a community worldwide," he said.

Rabideau said ACT continues to strive to see more representation in the theatre community.

"We should be exemplifying ourselves on the stage," he said. "If we live in such a diverse city, we should be promoting that in all the arts. and what we do in sports, in everything."

Communities coming together

Damilola Adekogbe is a first-time performer and aspiring professional actress. 

 "I do know that, moving on, in the future, I am going to be facing a little bit of criticism and a little bit of racism," she said. "At least I'm starting with a good background."

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She added that ACT provides her a foundation that theatre can be welcoming and inclusive.  

"Theater is amazing for such communities to come together,"  Katimbo said.

Memphis opens at the Capitol Theatre in downtown Windsor from April 17 to April 26.