NAC English Theatre: Next season doubles down on diversity

From a rebellion by a clever Ojibway guy to the police shooting of a black hip-hop DJ, the 2017-2018 NAC English Theatre season is clearly inclusive.

That’s in keeping with artistic director Jillian Keiley’s determination to bring to the national stage the multiplicity of stories that are Canada’s and, for that matter, the world’s.We’ve seen the encouraging result over the past few seasons with shows like ‘da Kink in my Hair, about black women’s lives and a Toronto beauty salon, and Kim’s Convenience, the story of a Korean family and their Toronto convenience store that became an award-winning television series.

It seems to be working out for the NAC.

“Our audiences have responded really well,” says Keiley. “Some people might think not playing to your white, middle-class audience is a problem, but in fact we’ve only been growing.”

So, what’s Keiley lined up for the new season?

Theatre Series

Onegin, a fresh, musical adaptation of Russian writer Alexander Pushkin’s early 19th century serial poem about unrequited love, opens the season Sept. 13 with what Keiley calls a “rock ‘n’ roll” blast. Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille — who, with Bill Richardson, created Do You Want What I Have Got? A Craigslist Cantata that played the NAC in 2014 – developed the show. “If you like a musical by Veda Hille or Arcade Fire, the very definition of new Canadian music, this is the show for you,” says Keiley.

Late October ushers in King of the Yees by Lauren Yee. A play within a play that has little regard for the fourth wall but a whole bunch of affection for chaos, the show features lion dancers, firecrackers, and a send up of both traditional Chinese culture and the western world’s stereotypical take on that culture.

In December, Newfoundland comedian Andy Jones rings in the Christmas season as Ebenezer Scrooge in a stage adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. And no, you didn’t misread that. The terrific show that Keiley directed in December 2016 is making a comeback, with Keiley again at the helm. Doesn’t she fear smaller audiences for a reprise? “Not really,” she says. “I had people writing me saying, ‘Next time I’m bringing my grandmother, my whole family.’ It’s almost an assumption that it would become a show we would bring back.”

Mid-January sees another kind of déjà-vu when Robert Lepage stars in his remarkable memory play 887. The show was part of last season’s NAC French Theatre’s lineup and included two performances with English surtitles. Many who saw it hungered for a return, this time in English, and we’re getting our wish. Autobiographical, it explores everything (remember, this is the artistically omnivorous Lepage) from his relationship with his father to what it means to be Québecois. A must-see next season.

In late March, David Yee’s carried away on the crest of a wave sweeps in, bearing with it a Governor General’s Literary Award for Drama and direction by Siminovitch Prize winner Kim Collier. Using the deadly Asiatic tsunami of 2004 as its anchor, the play explores how, while we’re all different, we’re all connected.

The Theatre Series concludes in May with Up to Low. Based on the novel of the same name by Ottawa’s Brian Doyle, this lovingly rendered coming-of-age play is set in the Ottawa Valley and along the Gatineau River in the 1950s. Adapted and directed by Janet Irwin, it debuted at the Magnetic North Festival in 2015. “This is the story of the Ottawa Valley,” says Keiley. “It’s gorgeous.”

Studio Series

Comedy and a sharp edge underpin Drew Hayden Taylor’s Sir John A: Acts of a Gentrified Ojibway Rebellion starts Oct. 3. A medicine bundle in a British museum, the bones of Sir John A. Macdonald, and a daring heist speak to the question of “Is my culture more important than yours?” says Keiley who, in continuing to bring Indigenous theatre to the NAC, follows in the footprints of Peter Hinton, her predecessor as artistic director.

Mandarin with English surtitles, a Chinese opera star, a diplomat and espionage combine in Mr. Shi and His Lover starting in early January. With music by Toronto’s Njo Kong Kie and text by Macau, China’s Wong Teng Chi, the show is based on a real-life 1980s political scandal and draws on eastern and western music for its score.

Omari Newton’s Sal Capone: The Lamentable Tragedy of closes the Studio season. Hip-hop beats help set the rhythm of Newton’s exploration of prejudice, homophobia, revenge and other pressing issues that follow from the police shooting of Sammy, the DJ of a black hip-hop crew who’s apparently committed no offense but to go for a walk.

For subscription and other information about the upcoming NAC English Theatre season, visit

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Patrick Langston covered English professional theatre for the Ottawa Citizen from 2008 to 2016. He also wrote about music, travel, the local housing industry and other subjects for the paper. Patrick continues to contribute to Ottawa Magazine, Diplomat and International Canada Magazine, and other publications.