Though Marie Josèphe Angélique’s date of birth is unknown, the date of her death is part of Canadian history: Angélique, a Black woman born in Portugal and brought to New France by slave traders, was hanged on June 21, 1734 for starting a fire that burnt down 45 houses in Montreal.
While her birthday may still remain a mystery, Black Theatre Workshop (BTW)’s Angélique ensures that she is remembered for more than just the day she died. The play was written in the 1990s by the late Lorena Gale, a former artistic director at BTW, and draws heavily on archival material. It’s less a story about the specific circumstances surrounding Angélique’s death and more an exploration of her life as an enslaved Black woman in New France, chronicling her pain and joy amidst the systems of oppression that ultimately sealed her fate. The narrative follows her life in Canada, from her arrival in New France, to the death of the evil, abusive slave owner François (in a truly disturbing portrayal by Karl Graboshas), to her own attempted escape and subsequent death. Knowing the ending doesn’t make the journey any less compelling.
Directed by Mike Payette, BTW’s Angélique doesn’t shy away from the most horrifying aspects of this journey. On a small, almost claustrophobic stage that makes the horrors all the more intimate, the cast mimes gruesome violence and the audience is given full access to Angélique’s deep trauma, acted with excellent intensity by Jenny Brizard.
But the play also avoids becoming solely an exercise in watching pain. In one exhilarating scene, Angélique and Manon (Darla Contois), an Indigenous woman who works for François’ neighbours, both play with sheets while doing their boss’ laundry. Their exchange has no dialogue, only giddy laughter and captivating choreography. The connection it conveys between these two oppressed women needs no words. The scenes where Angélique falls in love with white farmer Claude (Olivier Lamarche) are also charming, providing little snippets of romantic comedy amidst the otherwise tragic tale.
As celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday ramp up, plays like Angélique are doing the crucial work of calling attention to Canada’s past and present crimes – seeking reflection and atonement rather than celebration.
These moments of happiness, often the strongest in the play, assert that Angélique, while subject to immense oppression, can’t be reduced to it. Far from undermining the horror of her story, they make it feel all the more unjust when these moments are cut short (as with Manon) or lead to betrayal (as with Claude). The music in the play – composed and performed live on a ledge above the stage by the SIXTRUM percussion ensemble – adds to its immediacy, aiding the quick and sometimes disorienting vacillations between such intense sorrow and playful joy.
Angélique is, at its core, a story of historical structures told through personal relationships. Angélique’s relationship with César (Tristan D. Lalla) – a Black man who, when he asks for permission to court a woman, is coerced into partnership with Angélique – exposes how white supremacy structures the relationships between Black men and women, inhibiting sexual agency and dignity. Indeed, the white slave owners watch Angélique and César’s first meeting as if they’re at a zoo. Angélique’s relationship with Thérèse (France Rolland), François’ wife, depicts how white women – though oppressed in their own ways – are active oppressors of Black women. Through the relationship between Angélique and Manon, the audience sees how the weight of oppression can divide those who, under better circumstances, would likely be good friends.
These relationships, though effective as a microcosm for larger social forces, are sometimes not as fully drawn as they could be. Angélique and Manon in particular could use more scenes together, given that their first is so powerful. In general, the narrative moves between so many stories, time periods, and extreme moments of emotion, that the play at times could use more moments where the characters pause – allowing the audience to invest in them before moving on to the next plot point.
The relationship between Angelique and her environment, however, is wholly realized: the Montreal cold acts as an extra character, reinforcing Angélique’s sense of alienation from her home and nearly killing her when she goes on the run. Where contemporary representations of slavery often position the north – and Canada specifically – as the land of freedom, Angélique flips the script: when the protagonist tries to escape, she heads south to New England. As celebrations of Canada’s 150th birthday ramp up, plays like Angélique are doing the crucial work of calling attention to Canada’s past and present crimes – seeking reflection and atonement rather than celebration.
Though Angélique’s script mostly remains situated in the 1700s, the costume choices link Angélique’s experiences to the present day oppressions of Black people. François, in the scene where he first purchases Angélique and perversely describes her physical characteristics, wears a suit that looks like it belongs on a modern-day Wall Street patron. César, midway through the show, dons a black hoodie in a nod to Trayvon Martin, linking the way slave owner Ignace (Chip Chuika) treats César as an animal to Darren Wilson’s descriptions of Michael Brown. And in the final scene, as she is about to be hanged, Angélique herself wears an orange outfit reminiscent of a prison jumpsuit. The message is clear and crucial: the mass incarceration of Black people today is the direct legacy of stories like Angélique’s.
Where contemporary representations of slavery often position the north – and Canada specifically – as the land of freedom, Angélique flips the script: when the protagonist tries to escape, she heads south to New England.
Angélique opens and closes with dance: the first scene sees the cast circling the small stage in a line together, until Angélique falls out of step, collapsing and writhing onto the floor. It’s an arresting moment that foreshadows the manipulation and contortion her character will soon experience, conveying the sense that Angélique, as an enslaved Black woman in a cold, unfamiliar land, is not fully in control of her body – a notion that history seems to bear out.
But the play, in its final moments, suggests otherwise. As Angélique prepares to die, she breaks out once again into dance, but this time the movement is liberating. These last seconds are simply magnificent, a revelatory moment in Payette’s direction and Brizard’s acting. Against all odds, Angélique breaks free – perhaps not in the narrative, but certainly on the stage, and history, though not rewritten, has hope.