Black History Month laureate Josa Maule has taught over 5,000 students how to act onstage and off, and this year celebrates the 20th anniversary of her Montreal School of Performing Arts
by Richard Burnett
I shall never forget the first time I met Josa Maule: She was helping our mutual old friend, Montreal jazz singer and actor Michelle Sweeney, cook up a soul food feast at the home of renowned jazz-nightclub owner George Durst, the brains behind such legendary Montreal nightspots as Les Serres, The Bijou, Biddle’s and Monte Carlo.
Michelle – who bakes a mean sweet-potato pie – wanted to open a soul food restaurant, and so cooked dinner for an audience of bigshot epicureans in Durst’s glorious Old Montreal penthouse (the elevator was his front door because his amazing home takes up the whole floor). Michelle had a band with her that night (led by another good friend of mine, legendary bass player Orson Clark) to provide entertainment, and Josa was helping Michelle in the kitchen (which was about the size of my downtown apartment).
“But when Mayor Gerald Tremblay in his speech talked about the music the black community contributes to the world, I wanted to tell him we do more than just sing!”
When Josa walked into the dining room dressed in a full apron, one guest asked – as if Josa were Aunt Jemima herself – if Josa could sing Amazing Grace.
I wanted to die.
But Josa – with fire in her eyes – belted out a great version of the classic song written in 1779 by English poet, clergyman and reformed slave trader John Newton.
Many years later, at Montreal City Hall earlier this month, Josa was named one of Montreal’s 12 laureates to mark the city’s 21st annual Black History Month celebrations.
“But when Mayor Gerald Tremblay in his speech talked about the music the black community contributes to the world, I wanted to tell him we do more than just sing!” Josa tells me. “We’re doctors and teachers, we’re inventors, among the very first scientists. But people don’t know that.”
Maule only left her full-time job selling advertising for the Montreal weekly newspaper The Suburban 11 years ago to work full-time at the school.
Black folks – though you’d rarely know it from such awards shows like the Oscars – are also great actors. And many of them have studied at the Montreal School of Performing Arts which Josa founded 20 years ago back in 1992.
But it’s been a long, hard road. Maule only left her full-time job selling advertising for the Montreal weekly newspaper The Suburban 11 years ago to work full-time at the school.
“At the same time I was offered the opportunity to assist with casting extras for the feature film Rollerball,” Josa says. “I’ve been working on film projects ever since.”
Maule says MSOPA has weathered the current recession and has 90 students enrolled this semester. “We are still providing the same services we have over the past 15 years and cast an average of three or four projects per day – web series and commercials, theatre television and film, animation, fundraisers and celebrity look-a-likes. Everything except porno!”
These days it seems the quickest way to fame and notoriety is filming home-made porn, the same way Paris Hilton catapulted to fame. Today everybody is a star. Everybody’s a blogger and everybody’s a porn star.
“Students – they hear, they know it’s not going to be easy, it’s about luck and a lot of hard work. But they don’t really know."
Josa has seen students come and go, and the one thing that hasn’t changed during her years at MSOPA is the hunger so many of them have for fame and celebrity.
“This is a very delusional business,” Josa says. “Students – they hear, they know it’s not going to be easy, it’s about luck and a lot of hard work. But they don’t really know. Some students give themselves a time limit. ‘I’ll do this for a year and if I don’t make it to Hollywood, then I’ll try something else.’ I’ve had 5,000 students over the years and it hasn’t changed. They want to be rich and famous.”
MSOPA students call Josa their “Acting Mama” and one local filmmaker years ago crowned her ‘The Godmother’ – and did so with respect.
Photo from Montreal’s BHM 2012 calendar:
“I’m July. I’m the hottest month!
How did they know!”
But I have one word of advice for everybody: Don’t mess with Josa. You didn’t see the fire in her eyes when she sang Amazing Grace.
Which brings me back to Black History Month.
For 15 years MSOPA produces Sounds of Colour, a theatre concert presented each February to celebrate and honour black heroes. This year’s concerts in February will showcase African-Canadians Mathieu De Costa (the first recorded black person in Canada, member of the exploring party of Pierre Dugua, the Sieur de Monts and Samuel de Champlain in the early 17th century), slave woman Marie-Joseph Angélique (she burnt down Old Montreal in 1734), Viola Desmond (she protested with Rosa Parks), black soldiers from 1812, plus a tribute to Etta James and Soul Train’s Don Cornelius (I’m still speechless he committed suicide on the first day of Black History Month, no less).
“There is no other show like it in Montreal during Black History Month,” says Josa. “It educates and it entertains, and all the actors are my students. They all have to audition for their roles. Last year we had four black actors, three Latinos and two Jewish actors. This year the majority is black in a cast of 12.
“I grew up with my uncles' and mother's side of the family who are history buffs and they instilled in me pride of being black. I’m getting emotional now, but this is what I’ve wanted to do for as long as I can remember. I woke up one morning and said if I don’t do this, I’ll never know. The last two years with the recession have been tough on the school, but watching students grow as adults and develop their craft, so see them grow from wanting to be an actor to being an actor – it reminds me that all of this is worth it. I love my job. I feel really that I am blessed.”
The Montreal School of Performing Arts 15th annual Sounds of Colour will be held at the MSOPA (3975 Notre Dame West.). Cake and coffee will also be served at the February 25 performance (8 p.m.) and February 26 matinee (2 p.m.). Admission: $10. Info: 514-483-5526 or click here.
Final note: Montreal actor and soul diva Michelle Sweeney is currently fronting a touring jazz orchestra in Eurasia but revealed to me this week she is returning to Montreal to star in a stage musical about the life of Etta James.
Michelle cut her teeth playing the stages of Montreal, from co-starring in the Tony Award-winning musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ with local jazz great Ranee Lee (and stealing every scene she was in) at Montreal’s much-lamented La Diligence dinner theatre, to co-starring in the 1990 NFB award-winning feature film Strangers in Good Company, to bringing down the sweaty house at famed Montreal gay discos like KOX and Unity for 15 years.
Following the January 20 death of R’n’B legend Etta James, renowned Canadian theatre producer Roger Peace is bringing Sweeney back to Canada to star in Michelle Sweeney in At Last: The Etta James Musical.
Peace is currently artistic director at Copa de Oro Productions and is the man behind such phenomenally successful productions as Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill (starring Ranee Lee) and The Sisters Rosensweig (a huge success in co-production with the Saidye Bronfman Centre).
Sweeney says rehearsals begin in Montreal in May 2012.