Black woman told she couldn’t seek role in play; rights tribunal hears complaint

A Victoria woman who was told there were no roles for black women in a play she wanted to audition for will have her case heard by the provincial human rights tribunal.

Tenyjah Indra McKenna alleges a Victoria theatre company and director discriminated against her “with respect to a service and regarding employment on the basis of her race and colour,” after she asked to audition for a part in an upcoming production, according to tribunal documents released online on Nov. 5.

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In August 2017, McKenna contacted Judy Treloar, who was directing Les Belles-soeurs for the Victoria Theatre Guild and Dramatic School, about auditioning for a part in the 1965 play set in Montreal. A cast and crew of volunteers put on six shows a year for the non-profit company, also known as Langham Court Theatre.

Tribunal documents say that when McKenna told Treloar in an email that she was a black woman, Treloar responded: “As much as I do not like saying this, the 15 women in this play are Quebecois women and the play is set in Montreal in 1965. A black woman would not be a neighbour or a sister in this play, however I would love to meet you and hear you read.”

Treloar said her comments came from months of studying the play, and were not motivated by a racial bias.

But McKenna, who grew up in Montreal, questioned Treloar’s understanding of the city’s demographics in the 1960s in her email response on Aug. 18. She wrote that throughout the 1960s, her family lived and worked in the same Montreal borough in which Les Belles-soeurs takes place.

McKenna suggested Treloar was insisting on an “outdated tradition” of casting white women in the roles. She also brought up a 2015 incident in which the theatre was criticized for racial insensitivity.

The company’s 2015 production of Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood sparked outrage, because it featured white actors wearing dark makeup to appear South Asian.

In the same email, McKenna said the company appeared reluctant to cast black actors, adding racism is alive in Canada.

“Discouraging black people from participating in theatre over such tenuous and unsubstantiated claims is ridiculous and damaging,” she wrote.

McKenna said she appreciated the opportunity to perform with the company as Tituba, a reverend’s slave, in the 2016 production of The Crucible, but she hoped that Victoria’s theatre community could envision black actors in roles other than slaves and maids.

Treloar emailed McKenna the same day to apologize for her comments and admit she was not aware of the historical context McKenna provided.

“Sincere apologies to you Tenyjah!! I should NOT have said what I did ... I humbly apologize,” Treloar wrote.

One of the company’s production co-chairs, who was included in McKenna’s email to Treloar, emailed McKenna later that day, calling the situation “utterly intolerable,” and said the company had work to do to remedy the situation.

On Aug. 22, McKenna met with the co-chair and the general manager. When asked for ways to resolve the situation, McKenna said she wanted Treloar removed as director of the play and wanted to speak with the board.

Treloar continued on as director of the play, which ran from Nov. 15 to Dec. 2, 2017.

The general manager emailed McKenna on Aug. 30 to invite her to the board’s September meeting and advise her the company was working on structural changes. “I have learned so much from you, and I know it has been at your expense,” the general manager wrote.

The general manager apologized to McKenna, and said she hoped the company could find a way to be more inclusive and welcoming.

On Sept. 25, the company president sent a letter of apology to McKenna and invited her to the October board meeting, where they would be discussing an action plan to address the impact of the situation.

The theatre company said McKenna did not attend either meeting, and did not respond to or acknowledge the apology letter.

In late September, McKenna filed the human-rights complaint.

In October, the board appointed two ombudspersons to address reported harassment and discrimination, and in November, they approved changes to the company’s harassment and discrimination policy, as well as implementing diversity and communications training.

The theatre made a settlement offer of $1,500 to McKenna on June 7, 2018. She has not responded to the offer.

B.C. Human Rights Tribunal member Beverly Froese denied applications made by the company and Treloar to dismiss the complaint.

In her decision, Froese wrote that the settlement offer was not reasonable, because it did not adequately address the alleged violation.

She acknowledged the theatre made positive changes, but said they did not show evidence of how they addressed Treloar’s rationale for saying McKenna was unsuitable for a role based on her skin colour. “No steps were taken to ensure that Ms. Treloar’s casting decisions were made in an appropriate and non-discriminatory manner,” Froese wrote.

Froese also decided the $1,500 offer was too low based on previous complaints alleging racial discrimination in employment.

Treloar based her application to dismiss on the premise that proceeding with the complaint would not benefit McKenna, because the play concluded in 2017, and Treloar no longer has a relationship with the theatre company.

Froese denied the application because she said McKenna would be entitled to a financial settlement and non-monetary remedies that would benefit her if the complaint is successful.

McKenna said she was shut out from a “meaningful community activity,” while Treloar alleged McKenna had prior grievances with the theatre company that she “innocently and unwittingly” enabled.

In her decision, Froese wrote: “In my view, given the nature of the allegations and the often subtle and insidious nature of racial discrimination, a full evidentiary hearing is required to consider whether the remedial actions taken by the respondents adequately remedied the alleged discrimination.”

regan-elliott@timescolonist.coml

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