Content warning: racial slurs, anti-Black racism, police violence
This week, The McGill Daily spoke with Kym Dominique-Ferguson, a member of the Blackout writing team. Blackout, presented by Tableau D’Hôte Theatre, tells the story of the 1968 Sir George Williams (SGW) Affair, where Black students held a peaceful sit-in against discriminatory grading policies at Sir George Williams University – now known as Concordia University. The acting principal of the university, D.B. Clarke, called the police, who raided the sit-ins. They enacted violence against the protesters, arrested 97 students, and killed one student, Coralee Hutchison, through battery. The media depicted the protesters as the cause of the violence and of the damage done to the computer lab during the police raid. Blackout critically examined this false narrative and created a space for Black voices to tell their own stories, in their own words.
The McGill Daily (MD): The Sir George Williams Affair has largely been remembered as a “student riot,” and Blackout aims to tell the story differently from the mainstream narrative that the media portrayed at the time. What led you to want to tell this story, and why specifically on the 50th anniversary of the events?
Kym Dominique-Ferguson (KDF): Black voices are often vilified once they do not conform to white standards. The misnomer of “computer riots” or “student riots” of the Sir George Williams Affair was a deliberate move by the media to elicit a specific response from their viewers and readers at the time. If they named it the “Peaceful Computer Sit-In Protest” the public would react differently; perhaps more folks would have been empathetic to the students, rather than chanting “let the n****** burn.” Once Mathieu Murphy-Perron approached me to be a part of the writers of this project, I was immediately connected to it, and the answer was clear that I needed to be a part of this project. I was a member and am the former president of the Caribbean Students’ Union, the first student union in Canada, created to represent Caribbean and West Indian students following the ’69 SGW Affair.
Why tell this story on its 50th anniversary? The climate demands it. Things have barely changed in the world, but Black, Indigenous, and people of colour are sick and we are tired. It’s time for the truth to shine and for our stories to be told in our voices.
MD: Why did you choose the medium of a play, specifically, to tell this story, and how do you feel its impact would’ve been different through another medium?
KDF: Art knows very few boundaries. We were blessed with the very beautiful documentary, Ninth Floor, directed by Mina Shum and produced by the National Film Board in 2015. Four years later, there are people who still haven’t heard about this moment in Canadian or Montreal history. Stories must be told in different forms, because we are not all monolithic in the way we absorb information. Some people prefer documentaries, some folks like a play, others would rather look at art in a museum, and even rarer, there are folks who will take in all types of mediums and more. It’s been documented in David Austin’s Fear of a Black Nation and was reexamined in Ninth Floor, so the stage was the most natural progression after books and movies.
MD: The roles of activist women and POC are often pushed to the back, even in their own stories. Can you speak to the decision to have an all-Black and largely female cast?
KDF: Black women have always had a large role in activism. However, we lived, and still live, in a patriarchal society. So the natural tendency has always been to push forward the men of the groups. With this production, we wrote our characters as gender neutral as possible throughout the play, and the casting ended up with many powerful leading ladies. In the future, the cast may be vastly different if the play is given new life with an entirely new roster. Not only that, but we wanted to twist the narrative, allowing women’s voices, who weren’t always present, to be given a platform. After the show, some elders, many of them women, expressed joy and gratitude from seeing their story told onstage.
MD: Students of colour are often blamed for the SGW Affair, rather than the institutional abuse of power and racism, specifically anti-Black racism, that led the students’ occupation to what it became. Many forget that the events started after the university failed to properly address students’ racism complaints. How does Blackout point out what is so often forgotten – the university’s institutional racism and lack of accountability?
KDF: I can say this without giving an official spoiler alert, since there is no telling when Blackout will be given life onstage again. The penultimate scene, an adaptation of the Three Witches Scene from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, demonstrated our satirical interpretation of the cover-up that happened: the renaming of Sir George Williams to Concordia. Blackout ripped the band-aid off the old wound and bared the truth – the voices of the unheard – for all to see and experience.
MD: The physical damages, the computer centre, and the fire are often remembered as among the most important “consequences” of the Affair – but many students were arrested, assaulted, some were deported, and of course Coralee Hutchison died as a result of the police riot squad. How does Blackout shift the focus of the narrative back to the lives altered or lost rather than the secondary events that often take the spotlight?
KDF: Blackout puts the students front and centre at all times. We show their differences and similarities, their ups and downs, and we see their evolution throughout the play. Blackness is not monolithic, and this play makes the audience acutely aware of it. We incorporate breakout scenes to give the actors a moment to breathe because shit is intense, but also to provide the audience with pertinent information that cannot always be acted out onstage for fear of extending the play into three or four hours. Another way that we shift the focus back is through the projections, showing the faces of the people who were present at the time, so you never forget the faces that were visible. Finally, we say their names, over and over and over, from the opening scene until the closing one.
MD: Why did you make the decision to “modernize” the events in the play, such as by bringing in Black Lives Matter, and what effect do you think it had on the play overall?
KDF: We didn’t “modernize” much. The intentions are exactly the same today as they were back in the 1960s. The only difference is that the taglines of today, such as Black Lives Matter, are very catchy and succinct. Personally, I find people can put a block in their mind and say, “oh this was happening ‘back then,'” and refuse to draw the lines that connect the past to the present. We needed folks to wake up. Police brutality, racial segregation and systemic racism are things we, as people of colour, deal with regularly.
I feel Canadian racism is extremely insidious today, especially because we like to believe that “we’re not as bad as the US.” Not overtly, but we do have extremist groups bombing mosques, people in the streets telling protestors like myself to “protest in French,” or that our protest is not the “right way,” without looking at the bigger picture. Our government tells people, “we welcome you with open arms as you are,” and when people arrive that’s when we see the fine print that says: “so long as you conform to our rules and regulations and don’t you dare make me uncomfortable by speaking a different language, dressing differently, or having a different shade of skin.”
MD: What did it mean to perform the play in the same building as the occupation took place, in terms of how much or how little you see has changed in the past 50 years?
KDF: It was surreal. Many of the cast and crew kept wondering if the play would get shut down. I think back a few years when the Caribbean Students’ Union brought in Senator Anne Cools, the first Black Senator in Canada, who was present at the computer centre in 1969 and was arrested at the time, for a talk at Concordia. The university effectively muzzled Senator Cools, letting the Union know that she could not speak about the SGW Affair. This was only about five or six years ago. There was a cheeky feeling to presenting this play as well; the acting principal at the time of the Affair was D.B. Clarke, and the theatre was named after him. For the most part I experienced a deep, yet mischievous joy at being able to scream at the top of my lungs, “BLACK GRADES THEY MATTER HERE” every night in this production, so that the echoes can be heard today, only a few stories above the theatre, for the students whose voices were barely heard then. It was an honour to come into the building where a history I unknowingly became a part of and took part in took place, and to be able to retell the story in our own voices.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You can read more about the Sir George Williams Affair at mcgilldaily.com/2019/02/memories-of-the-sir-george-williams-affair/.
Images courtesy of Jaclyn Turner/Tableau D’Hôte.