For the Week of Monday, February 18, 2019.
On February 20, 21 and 22, 1849, the Toronto Coloured Young Men’s Amateur Theatrical Society performed “Venice Preserved” by Thomas Otway and scenes from the works of William Shakespeare at the Royal Lyceum Theatre in Toronto. Few details survive about the history of this group, which staged one of the earliest African-Canadian theatrical productions outside of a church setting.
The emergence and growth of African Canadian theatre was closely linked to the rise of the “Black church,” particularly in Canada West (now Ontario). Many refugees of slavery in the United States and their descendants settled in places like St. Catharines, Colchester, and Toronto in the early decades of the 19th century. They established churches of various denominations, including Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, and the Baptist Episcopal Methodist. These churches were central to 19th-century African Canadian life. These important places of worship also served as social gathering places and provided platforms for African Canadian politicians and artists, with actors performing in plays that brought Bible stories to life.
By the mid-19th century, secular theatrical groups, such as the Toronto Coloured Young Men’s Amateur Theatrical Society, were performing at some of the earliest purpose-built theatres in English-speaking Canada, like the Royal Lyceum Theatre, which opened in 1848. The Toronto Coloured Young Men’s Amateur Theatrical Society showcased the talents of African Canadians in an era when the mayor of Toronto was denying petitions to ban dehumanizing travelling minstrel shows, in which white actors portrayed people of African descent using racist caricatures known as “blackface.” The performances staged by this theatrical society were part of a long tradition of African Canadian theatre, which thrived in the 20th century and continues to this day.
Oro African Methodist Episcopal Church is a designated national historic site.