Reviving Angélique, a little-known, historically based drama from the late 1990s, is bittersweet, says director Mike Payette.
The play by the late Canadian actor, playwright and director Lorena Gale tracks the story of Marie-Joseph Angélique, a young, black slave in 18th-century Montreal who had an independent spirit and dreamed of freedom. Despite little credible evidence, she was tortured, hanged and her body burned in 1734 after she was found guilty of setting fire to the city.
At the NAC March 20-31, Angélique is an opportunity to bring her story and that of slavery’s sordid history in Canada, and especially in Quebec, to light, says Payette. That’s a good thing because those stories are “relevant to conversations we’re having now (about systemic racism) … The fact that we’re having the conversation is what makes it bittersweet.”
That sordid history of slavery in Canada gets little attention. According to the late Quebec historian Marcel Trudel, there were about 4,200 slaves in Canada – two-thirds of them Indigenous and the others black – for two centuries before slavery was abolished throughout the British Empire in 1833. James McGill, founder of McGill University, owned slaves. So did Marguerite d’Youville, who established the Grey Nuns and was canonized in 1990.
Gale’s play yokes the connection between what’s gone before and present-day reality by employing what Payette calls a “medley of contemporary language mixed with historical fact.” Although a 17th-century woman, he says that Angélique embodies what it means for a black person to live in our society today, where there’s still oppression and deep-seated racism.
Despite its contemporary relevance, Angélique, which premiered at Albert Theatre Projects in Calgary in 1998, seems not to have been produced since an off-Broadway show in the late 1990s. Critics for the New York Times and Variety dismissed the play, one of only two that Gale wrote before dying in 2009, with a collective sniff, but Payette is careful to stress that this is an entirely new production.
When he discovered the script and spotted its inherent theatricality, Payette immediately recognized that it was a show begging to be produced and he directed the version coming to the NAC in Montreal in 2017. While he remains puzzled as to why it hadn’t received recognition until then, he figures its socio-political content was ahead of its time.
He says that the sweep of news stories since the late ’90s — including that of Sandra Bland, the African-American woman who, in 2015, hung herself in a Texas jail cell three days after being arrested during a traffic stop — gives the play a new resonance and urgency.
In Payette’s view, Marie-Joseph Angélique was “one of the most courageous, spirited examples of injustice that we have in the black community and specifically the black Canadian community.”
Sexually abused by her white master François Poulin de Francheville, physically abused by his wife Thérèse de Couagne and forced to have children with another slave, Jacques César, she was “treated as though she wasn’t human,” says Payette.
Even so, she wasn’t afraid to create trouble. “Although dutiful and subservient, she was also uniquely herself, as much as she could be, and that was part of her eventual demise.”
Angélique died almost 300 years ago, but her story prompts questions about what lurks within all of us, Payette continues. Everybody has a monster within them, he says, but the play explores why some people feel they have the right to unleash those monsters and oppress others. “We’re trying to look at all these people as human beings.”
For Payette, Angélique’s reported admission, after being tortured, that she’d set the fire and her subsequent execution have a vital contemporary resonance. Her death “was based on rumour and speculation. It’s paranoia, and we can echo what that feels like today. Yes, this fire happened and it was devastating, but at the end of the day, she was hanged without firm knowledge of who actually started the fire.
“If you’ve eternally been degraded to the point of having to admit to something you didn’t do, that tells you something.”
Angélique is in the Babs Asper Theatre March 20-31 (previews, March 20 &21; opening night, March 22). For tickets and more information: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca