The Shaw Festival is a large non-profit theatre festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario, Canada, and is the only theatre in the world that focuses exclusively on plays by Bernard Shaw and his contemporaries.
It includes works written during or around Shaw’s lifetime (1856-1950). The festival also focuses on classic American plays that achieved great success at the time of their presentation, and still resonate today.
It seems that this year’s festival has decided to raise the issue of silent racism in Canada, as the play Trouble in the Mind by African-American playwright Alice Childers was selected for the 2021 show.
The play deals with the issue of racism in-depth, as it discusses the way to promote racism in society through the use of stereotypes in theatre and cinema. The play also discusses the bigotry of the white race, and reveals the falseness of allegations by the white race about the acceptance of the other and racial tolerance.
Although the play dates back to 1955, it is very relevant today. In this two-act comedy, Childress uses the theatrical device known as a play-within-a-play, or mise en abyme, to criticise the discrimination in society. It also serves to give her audience a chance to compare between the past and the present, to uncover the false claims of the white liberals of liberty and equality.
She uses the rehearsal of the play within as the framework of the play to prove the fact that nothing has changed. One of the most important messages that the play also directs is that white racism is not limited to African-Americans only, but extends to include many other races.
It is precisely this problem that has begun to surface and exacerbate in Canada in recent years as a result of the constant neglect and concealment of such issues.
Although Canada is often referred to as a country of immigration, a country open to difference, and a champion of multiculturalism, the voices denouncing ordinary and systemic racism have started to increase dramatically in recent times.
Undoubtedly, the demonstrations in Minnesota upon the death of George Floyd, who was killed by a white policeman and whose death sparked a global outcry, made Canadians more critical of racism in their society.
For example, a new national survey by York University that surveyed Canadians’ opinions and experiences with race found that 78% of black Canadians believe that racism is a “serious” problem, whilst 70% said they experienced racism regularly.
Most importantly, a new report by the Canadian Association of Black Lawyers asserts that black Ontarians have suffered from decades of racism and racial prejudice in the criminal justice system, and that little has been done to correct it.
According to the report, “The concept of black discrimination within the police has remained consistent among black Toronto residents for the past 25 years. In fact, little has been done to squash racial disparities when it comes to police tactics, such as stopping, questioning, and searching a black person.”
On the other hand, Canada also suffers from the spread of Islamophobia, which is also one of the most dangerous forms of racism, as it relies on discrimination based on beliefs and not only outward appearance.
Therefore, it was not surprising that a few days ago, the whole world witnessed the killing of an entire Muslim family in a hit-and-run incident in London, Ontario, which took place out of hatred. Although it is a terrible accident, its causes and motives in such societies are quite clear.
Racism and xenophobia will remain a threat to the most advanced and civilised countries unless it is revealed and spoken about frankly to confront it decisively. Theatrical and cinematic meetings and festivals will also remain an important platform for enlightening society and raising issues that governments deliberately ignore and overlook.
The Shaw Festival is one of North America’s finest cultural attractions each year, from April through December. However, with Ontario still under a provincial state of emergency and staying at home order, the festival management has decided to delay the start of the 2021 season to early July.
Dr Marwa El-Shinawy, PhD in American Theatre and member of the Higher Committee for the Cairo International Festival for Contemporary and Experimental Theatre