The glamourous world of Tonya Lee Williams
Montreal’s trailblazing Black Theatre Workshop hosts its 26th annual Vision Celebration Gala where Canada’s Emmy-nominated Tonya Lee Williams takes home the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Award
by Richard Burnett
Photo3: Bugs enjoys a rum and ginger at the home of Doudou Boicel
Photo 4: Bugs with Michelle Sweeney at Montreal’s House of Jazz nightclub
Black Theatre Workshop’s annual Vision Celebration Gala marks the unofficial launch of Black History Month in both Montreal and Canada as this country’s trailblazing black theatre company honours black Canadians advancing Dr. King’s dream in the – pardon the pun – Great White North.
This year’s honoree is the British-born Tonya Lee Williams, whose family moved to Oshawa, Ontario, in 1969. Williams modeled in Eaton’s catalogues as a teen, danced on the classic 1970s Citytv TV series Boogie! (think American Bandstand, but with Canadian TV production values). Then she was crowned Miss Black Ontario in 1977. But the Emmy-nominated, NAACP Image Award-winning Williams, now 53, is best-known for her role as Dr. Olivia Winters on The Young and the Restless, and for founding Toronto’s ReelWorld Film Festival back in 2001.
In other words, this woman kicks butt.
Much like the good folks behind-the-scenes at Black Theatre Workshop, like 79-year-old Dr. Clarence Baynes, BTW’s founding executive director and still VP of the group’s board of governors.
|Tonya Lee Williams Rancourt
“BTW was founded to create a black Canadian literature and black Canadian theatre and today we are Canada’s only black theatre company that [consistently] has a season at this point,” Baynes told me during BTW’s 40th anniversary 2010-2011 season. “It only adds to the responsibility and importance of what BTW does.”
The awards given at their annual Vision Celebration Gala have also helped BTW cross over to white audiences. “Initially our audiences were almost all black,” Bayne says. “Today they are 60 to 70 per cent white.”
Most notably, the Vision Celebration Gala awards the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award to an individual who – like this year’s recipient Tonya Lee Williams – has made significant contributions to the development of Black performing arts.
Last year BTW awarded its 25th annual Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award to legendary Montreal impresario Rouè-Doudou Boicel.
Doudou – as he is still called by everyone – founded Montreal’s famed Rising Sun Celebrity Jazz Club in 1975. He inherited the mantle from legendary black club owner Rufus Rockhead, became friends with the biggest names in the worlds of jazz and blues, and even gave Montreal’s nascent punk and reggae scenes a venue to hone their chops in.
|Bugs enjoys a rum and ginger at
the home of Doudou Boicel
Equally important, in 1978, Boicel founded Montreal’s first jazz festival. His inaugural Rising Sun Festijazz at Place des Arts in July 1978 starred, among others, Sarah Vaughan, Dexter Gordon, B.B. King, Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters.
“I didn’t get any help from the city or the provincial and federal governments,” Doudou says today. “They told me they didn’t want to support American culture. I told them Oscar Peterson was in my festival. They told me, ‘He’s an American.’ Now they spend millions and millions to promote international artists – which are American artists… The whole thing, I believe, is because I’m black. I’m not Québécois pure laine. And I am Doudou.”
And that was the point.
“All my life I wanted to promote black culture and there was nothing in Montreal [doing that at the time],” Boicel explains. “I started with local groups like Stephen Barry. Art Blakey was my first big name, in 1977, and he packed the place for a week. Then all the great names came.
“My deepest friends who helped me were Taj Mahal, Buddy Guy, Art Blakey, John Lee Hooker and Dizzy Gillespie who came to Montreal whenever I needed money. That was a guarantee my place was packed. Big Mama [Thornton] – she was living there!
“The club in itself is not a club – it’s a family business. Those artists came here for me because they were black brothers. [Many] had never seen a black impresario [like me before]. It was always white men.”
No less an authority than American blues legend Taj Mahal once told me, “The Rising Sun was an exciting place. Whenever the Rising Sun was on our tour itinerary, everybody in the band would get excited because when you went to Doudou’s place, you could hear every kind of music. There was no other place on the road [in North America] that was comparable to playing there, except for maybe a couple in Europe. At Doudou’s you really felt at home.”
|Bugs with Michelle Sweeney at
Montreal’s House of Jazz nightclub
Other past Dr. King achievement-award winners include other such famed Canadians as Oliver Jones, Rufus Rockhead, Oscar Peterson, Salome Bey, Charlie Biddle, Trevor Payne and one of my best friends, soul diva Michelle Sweeney.
Michelle cut her teeth playing the stages of Montreal, from co-starring (and stealing scenes) in the Tony Award-winning musical Ain’t Misbehavin’ with local jazz great Ranee Lee 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 gay Montreal discos like KOX and Unity for 15 years.
In fact, I rank Michelle's 1996 performance at Bad Boy Club Montreal’s internationally-famed Black and Blue circuit party – then drawing 20,000 revelers each year onto the Montreal Expos outfield at Olympic Stadium back when they hired such pop and dance legends like The Human League, Jimmy Somerville, Martha Wash, Ultra Naté and Loleatta Holloway – as that festival’s most breathtaking performance ever.
On this night Sweeney descended from the Olympic Stadium roof like an angel to join the Chorale Ganymède choir singing Reach Out by Sounds Of Blackness. “I had to walk along this narrow [catwalk] high above the stage,” Michelle recalls. “Now I’m not a small woman and here I was – oh my God – looking down at all those people dancing below!”
BBCM media relations director Carolyn Rousse remembers that moment like it happened yesterday. “That was back in 1996, the same year Girlina flew over the crowd in a spaceship and landed on the stage!” Rousse says excitedly. “That was my favourite B&B edition! There are things we did back then that just can’t be done anymore, like Michelle Sweeney on that stage coming down from the ceiling. Oh boy, that would not be accepted by the authorities now!”
This year’s Vision Celebration Gala will also award two young Montrealers for their scholastic and artistic achievements, as well as present The Clarence Bayne Community Service Award to Christopher Jordan for his contributions to Montreal’s cultural community.
Meanwhile, Dr. Clarence Baynes – current director of the Institute for Community Entrepreneurship and Development at Concordia University’s John Molson School of Business, and who in the 1970s ushered in the professionalism that BTW is known for – himself was awarded BTW’s Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Achievement Award back in 1992.
“I was honoured,” Bayne told me. “It was like getting my PhD.”
Black Theatre Workshop’s 26th Annual Vision Celebration Gala will be held Saturday, January 28, 2012, at the Holiday Inn Midtown Montreal (420 Sherbrooke Street West). Cocktails: 5:30pm. Dinner, Dancing and Awards: 6:30pm. Tickets: $125.
For tickets, call 514-932-1104 ext 226 or surf to www.blacktheatreworkshop.ca.