Site-specific historical drama illuminates local heritage in Toronto’s West End
Theatre can tell us fantastical stories and take us to extraordinary places. However, sometimes the most invigorating tales are the ones based in truth, or the ones in your own backyard. Finding Freedom: The Joshua Glover Story is an awe-inspiring example of such, using Etobicoke’s historic Montgomery’s Inn as the backdrop for the tale of an escaped slave and his life after escaping to Canada.
The performance shares its name with the biography researched and written by American historians Ruby West Jackson and Walter T. McDonald, which details the life of Joshua Glover, a slave who escaped servitude in Missouri and travelled into Canada via the Underground Railroad, where he settled in Etobicoke and found employment with Thomas Montgomery, proprietor of the local inn and farmlands. Along the way, he was briefly recaptured by his former master and jailed in Milwaukee, before the locals gathered to break him out, allowing him to continue his journey.
I’d rather not use a word like “reverence”, given the harsh realities of Joshua’s life, but it was an edifying experience to relive moments of his life where they happened. The show is a one-person act devised and performed by local Canadian-Nigerian actress Dienye Waboso, and over the course of an hour she embodied Joshua himself, as well as a myriad of other historical people he encountered. This also meant mastering a variety of dialects and accents in order to make each character distinct, such as his former master’s upright and cruel American-Brit sensibilities, or the demure Irish brogue of the Montgomery family. Waboso snaps to and fro between the gallery of characters and makes it look far easier than I’m sure it actually is. Particularly fascinating is how she nails the different accents of various American regions, which marks Joshua’s progress as he journeys north.
As evidenced by the eclectic character roster, most of this story is told through other people’s encounters with Joshua, such as his fellow slaves, the abolitionists who aided him, or his wife in Canada. We only hear directly “from” Joshua a handful of times, but these moments are always punctuated by Waboso’s conviction to the story.
Given the finite nature of the records about Joshua, most of the primary sources in both this play and its preceding biography are recounted at the hands of middle-to-upper class white American men. I couldn’t help but notice that his affairs seemed less detailed once he came into Canada, for instance. Our country is referred to as a “promised land” for the enslaved, and our own history of racism as a colonial nation felt like a footnote, which troubled me as a viewer. There were also a few moments where the script felt like a recitation of names and dates, which the performer appeared to briefly struggle with herself. That said, having the story recounted live by a Canadian black woman in a “real” place where it happened adds a powerful sense of truthfulness — even if it’s in their words, it is in her spirit.
The second half of the show was more interactive, consisting of a talkback session, a display of historical artifacts, learning a spiritual song, and a sampling of peanut cake, a staple food for slaves. This amplified the historical significance of the event and added a tangible, tactile element. Too often we rely on storytelling to be grim and shocking in order to convey seriousness or realism, and as audiences we tend to expect trauma to be graphically relived before we deign to believe or sympathize with its victims. I appreciated that Waboso told a true story without humouring our need for entertainment through terror.
This performance illustrates a Canada that while imperfect, nonetheless steps up to help oppressed refugees and those wanting to build a better life. I hope others who were lucky enough to see this show recognize the significance of such a message to our present times.
Finding Freedom: The Joshua Glover story performed August 3 and 4 at Montgomery’s Inn (4709 Dundas Street West)
Photo of Dieyene Waboso as Joshua Glover. Image provided by the company.