Monday, 12 April 2021

Canadian Black Clergies and Allies Set to Fight Systemic Racism

By Neil Armstrong

Photo contributed     Bishop Ransford C. Jones of the Canadian Black Clergies & Allies


The killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis in May 2020 was a “watershed moment” for Bishop Ransford C. Jones resulting in the founding of the Canadian Black Clergies & Allies to challenge systemic racism in Canada.


“I think it brought a new awareness, in terms of our contemporary setting. We know the struggle and the other Black struggles even from Martin Luther King, Jr. days coming right up and the different events that happened. But I think this one hit a nerve to many people that it just opened up a new awareness to where we are at as a society and how anti-Black racism still prevails in society and even in Canadian society,” says Jones who is the Chair of the organization and senior pastor of the Destiny Gospel Centre in Markham, Ontario.


Bishop Jones says Floyd’s death galvanized faith leaders to see how they could dialogue and actively intervene in these times.


On April 17, he will receive the leadership award at the 39th annual Black Business and Professional Association Harry Jerome Awards virtual presentation. This comes a day before the CBCA holds a virtual memorial service for people who have been affected by COVID-19, especially families that have lost loved ones. 



Although Bishop Jones has been in the streets protesting since last year and having discussions with various people, he says the CBCA believes that for systemic racism and the infrastructure underpinning it to change there must be policy changes at the highest level: federal, provincial and municipal governments. 


“We will be having some dialogue with them and we’re hoping that this awareness and this dialogue will be able to change some of those things.”

The CBCA is a collective multi-denominational and independent Black pastors and allies, that works collaboratively with a vision to create an environment of hope, justice, equality, and prosperity for Black Canadians. 


Its focus is on dismantling the infrastructure of discrimination, prejudice, and anti-Black racism in the Canadian society. 


Among its action items are family dynamics, systemic anti-Black racism (justice, law), economic development, educational initiatives, engage solutionists (churches, communities), and government and politics.


Bishop Jones says the CBCA wants to see reformation in the system and transformation, “even in our own Black community because we have our own endemic problems too and we want to be a part of that solution so working with our allies and our strategic partners and then we want to have a reconciliation among different groups.”


He says they want to see reconciliation in the broader community where there is diversity, inclusivity and everybody getting their rightful place and position to operate and to work.


Bishop Jones says CBCA welcomes every Black person and wants “all Black people to prosper and to fulfil their purpose wherever they are from.”


He is hoping that the programs the organization will be launching will be beneficial to Black Canadians and intends to measure their effectiveness in terms of how many people are reached and lives changed for the better.


Its allies include community-based organizations such as the Jamaican Canadian Association, Black Business and Professional Association, Tipping the Scales of Justice, and others, and it is open to white and Indigenous clergies. 


Since its launch in late February, the CBCA has held discussions with the Office of the Mayor of Toronto and Erin O’Toole, the Leader of the Official Opposition of Canada and leader of the Conservative Party of Canada. 


On May 25, the anniversary of the death of George Floyd, there are plans to hold a virtual service as a commemoration. 


Jones, who is from St. Mary, has been living in Canada for almost 30 years.

Friday, 2 April 2021

Canadian Drag Queen Michelle Ross was a Magnet for the Black Queer Community

By Neil Armstrong

Photo credit: DJ Blackcat     Michelle Ross at photo shoot at her home in February 2021


The legendary Jamaican Canadian drag queen, Michelle Ross, created space for the Black community in Toronto’s queer community with her first performance at The Manatee, a Toronto club, in 1974.


Ross, who passed away last weekend and believed to be in her sixties, is being remembered as a Canadian drag icon, a diva, a trailblazer, a philanthropist, a community advocate, a source of upliftment, and a world-renowned entertainer.


Since the news broke on the morning of March 28 that the incomparable female impersonator had died suddenly – the cause of death is unknown -- the outpouring of tributes has been unabated.  In the eyes of the Black LGBTQ+ community, Michelle Ross was a gem to be celebrated over and over again.


Douglas Stewart, a gay rights activist and community worker, first encountered Michelle Ross at The Manatee, an all-ages gay male space which notoriously had a no-women-allowed policy, in 1978. Every Halloween, his girlfriends would dress in male drags and would join him to check out the place.


In the 1970s, Black people went to all kinds of places but some of us were also looking for where Black folks and Black community were, says Stewart. He found that in Michelle Ross’s presence and performances.


“Many of us came out who were looking for Black community in queer community and lamented that there wasn’t, for example, a Black place to go, a Black gay bar or community spaces where you go and see lots of Black people. 


“What Michelle began to do, along with other people is she began to create those spaces. She became what I call the magnet so the buzz would happen where is Michelle performing, Michelle is going to be at whichever club so you know that when you go that club you see a significantly larger number of Black people than you would normally see in those spaces,” says Stewart who was the founding executive director of the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention and a founding member of Zami, the first Black queer group in Toronto.


For 47 years, Michelle Ross had reigned as the fabulous veteran drag queen whose performances so many encountered and gained inspiration. 


Many Black queer people saw themselves on a stage which was also “a metaphor for the larger world stage for our lives so to suddenly stand and see this glitter and light shine on this person who is fantastic, who also resonates with us because they are performing music that our parents were in our homes that we grew up with,” says Stewart who came to Canada from Jamaica in the 1970s.


But there’s a way to that where Michelle just came on and shone and you saw that, and connected us and made us feel more confident, more thoughtful about your whole location in this community and your belonging in this space and the way she commanded a presence. And then you realize you could also take up space.”



DJ Blackcat, a friend of Ross for more than 30 years, honoured her at a Pride Toronto event, Rise Up!, to celebrate Black History Month in February of this year, which was recorded at her home. As a program curator at Pride Toronto, it was his idea to celebrate her.


Before meeting the celebrated drag queen years ago, Blackcat would hear people talk about the artist but had never seen her or even a photograph. All he knew was that she was a performer. 


Being new to the gay scene in the early 90s, he didn’t know what drag was but his first memory of Michelle Ross was at a house party where she said hello on a vista speakerphone to the partiers. He recalls that, suddenly, all the lights were turned on and the music shut off so that she could greet them. They all responded in unison. 


Blackcat’s first time seeing her was at the iconic Toronto Latin nightclub, El Convento Rico, where other performers opened for Michelle Ross. He was enthralled by her performance which commanded attention. 


“It was one of the best drag shows I have ever seen, to date. I’ve never seen so much money …the whole stage was just covered with money; she wasn’t holding the money anymore,” he says, noting that patrons were calling her Diana Ross and he was confused and wondered if it was actually the veteran African American singer performing that night. 


Later, he realized that it wasn’t, but Blackcat says it was the first time that he saw a drag show of that calibre with outfit changes to boot.


He says Ross was a very private person and would only allow people “to know so much about her.”


“When Michelle likes you she will let you in, in certain ways, and like she will let you come over to her house, she will cook you food. We stayed up a couple nights just running jokes about men that she encountered in her trips and in Toronto. The stories were hilarious and she was a very good storyteller and I appreciated those stories.”


In her public persona, Michelle Ross was featured in Anton Wagner’s and Edimburgo Cabrera’s 2002 documentary, Divas: Love Me Forever, which is described as a comic-serious documentary about female impersonation, desire, fantasy, self-acceptance and the search for love. 


Edimburgo Cabrera, the Cuban-Canadian director and videographer (Latin Queens), follows six black female impersonators through Toronto's vibrant gay club scene as they search for home, family, and love. The life stories of these six divas become a prism illuminating gay life in the Caribbean and North America from the 1970s to the present.

A diva is a female impersonator who stands out amongst her peers because of her superior performance talents, devoted public following, and public advocacy on behalf of her gay community. The divas in the documentary are Michelle Ross, Chris Edwards (who passed away in 2016), Jackae Baker, Stephanie Stevens, Matti Dinah and Duchess (who passed away in 2001).


“It’s a mask that I’m wearing,” Ross says in the documentary while expressing her foibles and her joys in this window into her personal life.


 “I’ve done well, I can do better and I thank him everyday,” she says looking upwards and acknowledging that her performances, which started in 1974, had taken her around the world to places such as Switzerland, Japan, Puerto Rico, Paris and London.


Asked where did she see herself ten years from then, Ross said, “Back in Jamaica, retired,” and living on a big property with many tenants and “lots of things to do.”


Michelle Ross also appears performing at The Manatee in Outrageous! – a 1977 Canadian comedy film directed and written by Richard Benner and starring Craig Russell as Robin Turner, a female impersonator, and Hollis McLaren as Liza Conners, Turner’s schizophrenic roommate. Shot in Toronto, it was one of the first gay-themed films ever to receive widespread theatrical release in North America.

Photo credit: Junior Harrison  Michelle Ross performing at Blockorama in 2013

Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, James R. Johnston Chair in Black Canadian Studies and an associate professor in the Department of Community Health and Epidemiology at Dalhousie University in Halifax, Nova Scotia, says the passing of Michelle Ross is a huge loss and she can't imagine what this type of loss means for all who loved her and knew her intimately. 


“I don’t remember when I first saw Michelle Ross, I feel like she was always a beautiful presence in Black queer space, on Church Street and at Pride, especially Blocko. But the moment that really affected me was when we were living in Sudbury. For many reasons living there was just a horrible experience. And I felt stuck, trying to figure out how I would leave that place. It was really harmful to my mental, emotional and physical health and well-being.”


In the summer of 2014, Dryden was in Toronto, having arrived early for Pride and her partner, Gwen, would join her later. 


Dryden remembers being in the Loblaws at Church and Carlton and Michelle Ross was doing a Pride event. “Ayende and I chatted and I just watched Miss Ross in awe. She saw me, and came over to say hi. It was her recognition of me that was so impactful.”


“At Blocko that same year, Michelle Ross performed early in the line-up and she performed King Jesus. I didn’t know that song. But she absolutely took us to Black Queer church. Everyone was singing, everyone was clapping, everyone was swaying, Miss Ross held each of us, lifted us up and honestly, I felt so healed in that moment. That song stays with me to this day and each and every time I play it, it is Miss Ross' performance at Blocko that I am replaying, revisiting. And I'm healed again. That was such a very difficult time for me, but that performance, that intervention by Michelle Ross helped me in ways I cannot fully put into words. 


In an essay entitled “Fragments of Toronto’s Black Queer Community: From a Life Still Being Lived (2005)” in Our Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, Rinaldo Walcott opens with a meditation on three Black drag queens: Michelle Ross, Jackae Baker and Miss Burundi.


The director of Women and Gender Studies Institute and an associate professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, University of Toronto, underscores his belief that “black drag queens hold an important political and emotional place in the queer community that is often not acknowledged.”  

“Rarely are these brave black men – who are out for all to see as both gay men and imitators of black and sometimes white women – given any consideration in discussions of black or, generally speaking, queer communities. These days, when folks write about queers, especially black queers, drag queens hardly get a mention.”


Walcott notes that Ross has enduring ties to Jamaica and concludes his essay with a description of her performance.


“Miss Ross’s performance almost always ends with a gospel set – more often than not, her particular rendition of “King Jesus.” When she performs this song, she also does a strut around the bar, “anointing” the participants as any evangelical Pentecostal preacher might do.”


He posits that these “underacknowledged community makers provided – and continue to provide – examples of how to live a life still in progress and how to imagine a future that might be different from the present.”



Filmmaker and director Phillip Pike -- who organized Bigger Than We, a celebration of the Black LGBTQ+ community in 2017 where Ross was honoured, and the producer of the documentary Our Dance of Revolution, about Toronto’s Black queer community over four decades – says many of the people he interviewed for the documentary emphasized how important it was to include Michelle Ross. 


“In fact, I would go so far as to say that it was brought home to me that no history of Toronto’s Black queer community could be told without including Michelle.“


Initially, he wanted to interview her for the documentary but she declined. Pike was feeling somewhat frustrated as, on the one hand everyone was saying Ross had to be included but, on the other hand, she did not want to be interviewed. 


“Then, while I was interviewing Rinaldo Walcott something he said gave me the idea of including her not by way of an interview but by way of having others pay tribute to her. Knowing that she would be present at Bigger Than We, I sneakily arranged with Mykel Hall to coral her and pay tribute to her, which we of course captured on film. I was very happy that I was able to include her in the film in that way which, in the end, made more sense than simply interviewing her.”


Meanwhile, DrJill Andrew, MPP for Toronto-St. Paul’s and Ontario NDP Culture and Women’s Issues Critic, says Ross was an icon, a visionary, and “a force in our community and changed lives across the globe.”


“Her leaving our world is such a loss. I never met someone with more confidence who literally lit up the room and made each person in her presence feel ALIVE and FREE! Blackness Supreme beauty and queerness...”


Andrew has seen her perform many times and cannot name the first time from memory – could have been at Crews & Tangos or at The 519 – “but God did I ever love her performance of The Boss (Diana Ross),” says Andrew who is a huge disco fan.


She made us all know that we had every right to live our lives and to live them FULLY and IN COLOUR never shrinking ourselves for anyone anywhere. We love you Michelle Ross. REST. IN. POWER.,” wrote Andrew on Twitter. 


Twysted Miyake-Mugler, co-founder of the Toronto Kiki Ballroom Alliance and host of a new podcast, The Plot Twyst, “that covers just about everything but from my lens. Black. Gay. Canadian,” reminisces on seeing a performance of Michelle Ross for the first time.


“The first time I ever saw Michelle Ross, I don’t even think I could remember the exact date, but it was my first time experiencing Church Street beyond the Black gay clubs. We were going from bar to bar, on a Friday night and were looking for the spot where familiar faces were. 


“As we approached Crews, I remember there being a flood of people, with an open window with a drag queen performing. This was the first time I had ever seen a Black drag queen, in person, and I remember having a multitude of emotions, ranging from confused to mesmerized. As she lip-synched the song, with an “air of regality” - the money just started flowing in from everyone in that club and I knew that she was THE one!”

Photo credit: Junior Harrison    Michelle Ross at Blockorama in 2013


Verlia Stephens is a part-time professor at George Brown College, the program coordinator and mentoring coordinator at Supporting our Youth, Sherbourne Health Centre, and a longtime friend of Ross.


“Whenever we had any parties that I had with Nik Red, Michelle would always be there to support us,” says Verlia Stephens, noting that, “She was there for me all the time and I’m really struggling with feeling like I couldn’t be there for her, especially during COVID times.”


“Michelle really knew how to take care of our community, like our Black community, especially those who may have been undocumented, don’t have status. Always making sure that folks were okay, but she did this on the down low. A lot of people didn’t know that and I think that’s what made her safe,” Stephens says.


She noted that Ross “really honoured where people were at and kept it like that. People trusted her with their stories, with what was happening, with their secrets and you know that if you spoke to her, she’s going to keep that and support you and that’s how I saw her, she was a safe haven for us, especially Black Caribbean folks.”


“And I’m hurting and I’m sad that I wasn’t there for her, that’s how I feel. Every time Michelle and I saw each other it was like I was seeing someone who was my chosen family.” 


When Michelle Ross entered the world of performance as a drag queen, the only person she might have seen as a Black queer artist in Toronto was Jackie Shane, a pioneer transgender performer. 


Born on May 15, 1940, Shane was an American soul and rhythm and blues singer, who was most prominent in the local music scene of Toronto in the 1960s. She was a contributor to the Toronto Sound and is best known for the single, Any Other Way, which was a regional Top 10 hit in Toronto in 1962 and a modest national chart hit across Canada in 1967. Shane died in Nashville, Tennessee February 21, 2019.

Photo credit: Ricardo Goldson    A memorial to Michelle Ross on the steps of Crews & Tangos






Since her death, Stewart says there has been talk about connecting with city politicians to see if there can be some acknowledgement or commemoration, whether it is a significant civic recognition from the city. Community members are also looking at, COVID or no COVID pending restrictions, at some point in the warmer weather to be able to lock off Church Street and have some kind of celebration.


Stewart thinks at any point when the next Blockorama or whatever happens, it does not have to be one thing but that multiple things can happen because of the different kinds of relations Michelle Ross had with people.


He is hoping that Black queer scholars and thinkers will facilitate “some kind of academic conference which talks about Black drag and its significance, call it the Michelle Ross Symposium, I think multiple things because there are so many things.”


Many years ago, he discussed with colleagues that there should be an event called “Artifierce.”


“We recognize sometimes the complexity of drag because it also plays with ideas of femininity and womanhood and so on that can be seen as problematic. But at the same time, we know that it also interrupts and challenges these constructs of gender in ways that are also playful and entertaining on another level.


“For Michelle herself, it’s about where and how that looks. I think it can look all kinds of way, all kinds of different things can happen but I think we as a community…if it wasn’t for COVID when we all got the news we’d probably gather on Church Street and would have found ourselves at some place to be hanging out together.”


Stewart had always been pushing the idea that Michelle Ross should have been getting recognition and invited to academic conferences to speak.


“Artifierce” to look at how the fierceness of culture that drag represents, in terms of how it contributes to what we see as the idea of high art, the definition of high art. Look at what these men do consistently. RuPaul’s Drag Race has shone that attention, he says. 


“I think much could be done to more talk about what that represents in the ways that Walcott is saying and I think that’s why I say so many things could be happening.


Not just generally drag, but Black drag queens and I think it’s no accident that the Ru Pauls of the world is the ones who are at the leadership, as problematic as RuPaul’s Drag Race can be, but is at the helm of that, who got the idea, who put that out there is a Black queer man.”


Stewart underscores that before people came to the place where they were comfortable or even to find space, there was Michelle Ross and other drag queens holding court and finding a space that they could be “a magnet as space creators because when you saw them it’s like the Pied Piper we’re pulled back to there’s one of us, our home, we’ve got to go hang with them.”


He remembers that The Manatee, Voodoo, Katrina’s which became Colby’s were clubs on St. Joseph St. and even if you couldn’t get in them, the nights that you know that Michelle Ross or any of those Black drag queens were performing “when you went outside the club at 2am, 3am, St. Joseph St. was full of people, and what was always striking it was predominantly Black people because Michelle and those girls were somewhere around performing or something.”


After their performance, they might have something at one of their apartments and partiers would go back there or they would have specific parties.


As one of the organizers of Bigger Than We, Stewart emphasized to Pike that the notion of activism be expanded.


“Michelle lived her life with the value of more than herself, it’s like literally bigger than, I think if anybody epitomizes that it’s bigger than we, she did. However she was climbing she was bringing people with her. I think the other queens can tell you that, and even beyond the Black community because I think the Filipino queens, the white, all of them would say the same thing that she made sure there was more space for more people. And along with, she also saw you go into a space and Black people feel that, even when you go into the mostly white dominant space,” says Stewart.


Michelle Ross would acknowledge other Black people wherever she came across them even when she worked at Le Château as a tailor in the 70s. When a Black person walked in, she would connect with them right away.


Beyond being someone who sets a stage and a presence within her performing space, she collaborated with the parties that happened in St. James Town and it was at least a space where you would find Black community and queer within Black community. 


Ross was the face but a lot of other people were putting on these events and making sure there were these spaces, people who weren’t out and maybe closeted but were all creating an underground community that we could all connect to, says Stewart.


“Many of us were saying that Michelle should get her flowers because beyond what she did for community. She’s a supreme performer, she’s been so present in the community, she has given us so much joy and all of that and who doesn’t know her. She’s world-renowned, including going to the Caribbean and into the belly of the beast of Babylon in Jamaica to perform and be who she is in all kinds of spaces -- that she should get her flowers.


“Michelle made sure that people had roofs over their heads, they had food in their stomach, they got kicked out of home an encouraging word connecting them to folks, she was that person.”


Over the years, Stewart reminded Ross that she should not downplay the fact that she was creating space – an activist thing – and was doing something that was going against the grain. 

Photo credit: DJ Blackcat    Michelle Ross in a photo shoot at her home in February 2021


Meanwhile, in 2019, Blackcat told friends that he wanted to do something big for Ross and honour her. They were planning to put together a committee to do so but then the COVID-19 pandemic struck in 2020 and it never happened.


Having taken on a new job with Pride Toronto, he shared the idea with them and they decided to include it in their Black History Month programming.


“We decided that we were going to surprise her with flowers and have a little speech and say something to her. I asked her to perform -- she did not know that we were going to do that,” says Blackcat who assured her that he would come to her house and set up the lighting, get the music together, and make her look fabulous.   


At the end of the performance, he surprised her with flowers, on behalf of Pride Toronto and the community.


“You personify excellence and sometimes you feel that the community does not appreciate you,” he told her, to which she responded yes and was teary-eyed as he articulated her accolades. 


Blackcat spoke to Ross about doing some things for Pride, which, unfortunately, will now not happen.


“It was really important to me to give her, her flowers, that’s what we’re all saying now, that’s the term we’re using -- to give her, her flowers, while she was still here,” he says, noting that this is how the photo shoot that he posted on his Facebook page a few days ago came together.


Ross agreed to the photo shoot and parts were videotaped as something Blackcat would keep for himself. He posted it online ten days before she passed.


“It took me a while to get the pictures together…I sent them to her for her to okay. She loved them and then I put them up,’ says Blackcat, quite happy that he decided to take the pictures and videotape her performance.


He plans to eventually put the videos up in a way that will honour her, he says, still grappling with the loss of her.


Blackcat says 20 years ago, another Black drag queen, Duchess, passed away and at that time she was the closest person to Ross.


“Duchess was Michelle’s daughter and I was left with the task of letting people know that Duchess had died,” he says, noting that the first person he called was Ross who was in disbelief.


They commiserated together but now that Ross has passed away he is by himself saying goodbye to her.


In the meantime, the tributes continue to pour in from organizations within the Church-Wellesley Village and LGBTQ+ community.


“We bid adieu to a legend, a queen, an icon: Michelle Ross. A proud Jamaican-born Canadian, Michelle, reigned the local drag scene. Known to exude kindness and warmth, she wowed folks at our Green Space Festival helping raise funds for our communities, Rest in power, Ms. Ross!” The 519 tweeted on Monday.


Pride Toronto said Michelle Ross performed such female entertainers as Dionne Warwick, Gloria Gaynor, and the Diva Diana Ross. 


“She continued to make a name for herself in a six-year stint at La Cage Aux Follers in Toronto, La Cage tours in Japan, Canada and Paris, a residency at Caesar’s palace in Las Vegas and high profile events in London, England, Chicago, Texas, Florida, New York City and her native land of Jamaica. Classy. Elegant. Glamorous. Miss Ross,” tweeted Pride Toronto.



On Sunday, Blockorama & Blackness YES posted on its Facebook page, “Our thoughts are with family, friends and the entire community that was touched by Michelle Ross’s work and presence. Today we remember a legend.”

The Black Gay Men's Network says, "The queer community in Canada lost a true icon this weekend. Michelle Ross was the sort of drag performer that pierced your soul with just a look. She made you feel special, like it was just you and her in the room. There aren't enough words, Michelle. Thank you."


“Beyond the mourning and observation is also the celebration of a life 

lived. There will probably be a coalition of people who come together and do something big, along some smaller things. It’s like a BLM protest,” says Stewart.


Some Sources for More Information


Legacies in Motion: Black Queer Toronto Archival Project - See We Yah!,  curated by Courtnay McFarlane.

Our Dance of Revolution: The History of Toronto’s Black Queer Community, a documentary by Phillip Pike.

Rinaldo Walcott’s essay “Fragments of Toronto’s Black Queer Community: From a Life Still Being Lived (2005)” inOur Caribbean: A Gathering of Lesbian and Gay Writing from the Antilles, edited and with an introduction by Thomas Glave, published by Duke University Press, 2008.

Video of Michelle Ross performing at Blockorama at Pride Toronto 2002.

Michelle Ross was honoured at the Bigger Than We community celebration on June 18, 2017.

Douglas Stewart - provided me with links to archival information on The Manatee, the film, Outrageous!, and documentary, Divas: Love Me Forever, and the Bigger Than We video.


Thanks to: DJ Blackcat for photos from the photo shoot with Michelle Ross in February 2021 at her home, Junior Harrison for the photos and video of Michelle Ross performing at Blockorama in 2013, and Ricardo Goldson for the photo of the memorial outside Crews & Tangos in the Church-Wellesley Village.

Thanks Douglas Stewart, DJ Blackcat, Dr. OmiSoore Dryden, Verlia Stephens, Dr. Jill Andrew, Phillip Pike, Twysted Miyake-Mugler and Rinaldo Walcott.



Monday, 8 March 2021

Robert Ball Gets ‘Up Close and Musical’ at Stratford Festival

 By Neil Armstrong

Robert Ball in Up Close and Musical for STRATFEST@HOME    Photography by Ann Baggley


When singer-songwriter Robert Ball walked onto the stage of the Festival Theatre at the Stratford Festival to perform in its new cabaret series, Up Close and Musical, it was a very emotional experience.


Ball was to have his debut at the festival last year and was rehearsing the role of Brent on that stage for the world première of Here’s What It Takes, a brand new musical by Steven Page and Daniel MacIvor, but the company’s 2020 season was cancelled due to the COVID-19 pandemic.


“I had been rehearsing on that stage in order to get comfortable with the space but here I was back on that stage again, but this time to perform but yet again without an audience. So that was a little unusual but at the same time just to be on a stage and to be on that particular stage was really an emotional experience. And then when the lights came down, for performers it’s like being home.” 


The role in Here’s What It Takes  – a successful Black gay man – was of particular significance for him as he felt it was the first time he had seen himself in a script. 


Ball had played a gay character in a play and film a year before being at the Stratford Festival but that role was “of a villain, a manipulator, not exactly somebody that I identified with but I found a way to make it human and make that experience empowering for me.”


Now, he welcomes the opportunity to play someone whom he says is seldom seen in media and being that character is really exciting but also very daunting as well.


Ball is excited to be part of a brand new show, from its foundation, describing it as a dream and to also work with a Canadian icon Steven Page, Daniel MacIvor and Donna Feore.


While his official debut waits in the wings, Ball presents himself to Stratford audiences for the first time in Bold, Bruised, Born to Befeaturing a suite of powerful songs, including Page’s timely anthem “Where Do You Stand?” His accompanist is Jeremy Ledbetter. 


Captured on stage in the Festival Theatre, Up Close and Musical features intimate, heartfelt concerts, filled with emotion, love and laughter. They include songs from musical theatre greats and beloved songwriters, along with personal reflections from each singer, written during the pandemic. 



Ball says the theme of the music and his talking points in Bold, Bruised, Born to Be resonated from “this idea of all of my experiences, my ancestral history, who I am, in terms of my identity, all of the experiences.”


Each Up Close and Musical cabaret will be featured on a free YouTube watch party and then will be available on Stratfest@Home, the Festival’s new $10-a-month subscription service.


The YouTube première of Bold, Bruised, Born to Be will be streamed for 36 hours free on Thursday, March 18, at 7:30pm EST, streaming thereafter on Stratfest@Home until September 17, 2021.


“People should tune in for raw, intimate, emotive music, music that tells a story, music that has a heart, to learn a little bit about my story in song and dialogue.”  


When Ball moved to the Stratford, Ontario to be part of the company, he did not know anyone, however, the community of artists and performers, behind-the-scenes creatives, and the city itself, all embraced him.


“Of course, it’s not anything like what it would be like in the usual season so I’m kind of looking to at least some semblance of that. But it’s been nice to meet all of these people and to be welcomed in this way.”


Ball knew he always wanted to be an artist – from as far back as coming out of his mother’s womb all he remembered wanting to do was to become a visual artist. It was his passion.


He attended Claude Watson School for the Arts and the arts program at Earl Haig Secondary School, both in Toronto, where he was a visual arts major.


Around age 11 or 12, two significant moments piqued his interest further.


“One, I remember watching Rachelle Ferrell perform on the Grammys a tribute to Patti LaBelle. I said that’s what I want to do. And then also I was singing along and recorded myself to Boyz II Men and Des’ree, and a friend of mine came over and heard my tapes and was just completely in awe. And that’s when something clicked,” says Ball.


At about age 18 during his last year of high school he realized that this is the profession that he should pursue. This was also the time that he got his first paid gig as well.


Ball, who is 40 and the son of a Jamaican mother and an African Canadian father with deep roots in Canada’s black history, has been performing for 22 years. 


On his father’s side, Ball is six generations Black Canadian. His great-great-great grandfather came to Canada through the Underground Railroad and settled in the Windsor-Chatham area of Ontario.


His mother is from Black River, St. Elizabeth and went to high school in Montego Bay, Jamaica. She immigrated to Canada in 1973. 


Ball’s smooth vocals caress the genres of soul, neo-soul, jazz, easy listening but he’s not limited to only those. The singer-songwriter says he writes and sings from his heart and his life journey.

Here is a link to Ball's performance of his song, "Breathe."


Some Other Cabaret Shows in ‘Up Close and Musical’ at Stratfest@Home to Check Out.


Vanessa Sears in Up Close and Musical for Stratfest@Home     Photography by Ann Baggley



That’s How the Song Goes

Accompanist: Sean Mayes

YouTube première (free streaming for 36 hours): Thursday, April 8, at 7:30pm EST

Streaming on Stratfest@Home: April 8 – October 7, 2021


Rising star Vanessa Sears has performed on stages across the province, scooping up countless awards along the way, and was set to return for her second Stratford season in 2020 in the world première of Here’s What It Takes. As she reflects on feelings of loss from the last year, Sears is choosing not to retreat into music but to use it as a battle cry. That’s How the Song Goes features an eclectic selection of show tunes, like “Work the Wound” from Passing Strangeand “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly?” from My Fair Lady, and “I’m Coming For Ya,” a brand-new song written specifically for her by JJ Gerber (who played Troy in Stratford’s 2016 production of A Chorus Line). 

Marcus Nance in Up Close and Musical for Stratfest@Home     Photography by Ann Baggley



Voice of a Preacher’s Son

Accompanist: Franklin Brasz


Streaming on Stratfest@Home: January 28 – July 27, 2021


Marcus Nance’s father survived poverty and racism in the Deep South to realize his dream of raising a family in a home full of music. This music has taken Nance from his father’s church to the stage, including stints on Broadway and eight seasons at the Stratford Festival. Voice of a Preacher’s Son reveals the man behind the famous bass-baritone as he tells his family’s story amongst beloved, familiar tunes, like “Amazing Grace” and “Soon Ah Will Be Done,” and soaring Broadway hits. 

Alexis Gordon in Up Close and Musical for Stratfest@Home      Photography by Ann Baggley




Unexpected Dreams

Accompanist: Kevin Ramessar

Streaming on Stratfest@Home: February 25 – August 24, 2021


Alexis Gordon found her life’s direction when she saw the all-Black cast of the Festival’s Harlem Duet and realized that dreams of the stage could come true for people who looked like her. Years later, she had a full-circle moment, making her Stratford debut as Julie Jordan in 2015’s Carousel, and she has since returned for three seasons. In Unexpected Dreams, Gordon explores what new dreams can arise from the world’s great pause, singing a selection of inspirational songs, including a special return to Carousel with “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” 




Saturday, 13 February 2021

Boonoonoonos Brunch Celebrates 21st Anniversary

By Neil Armstrong
Photo contributed     Dr. Upton Allen,  Head of the Division of Infectious Diseases, The Hospital for Sick Chidren (SickKids)

An idea that started as a fundraising event at the Jamaican Canadian Association and has become a staple is celebrating its 2ist anniversary this month. 

Erma Collins, a veteran member of the JCA and former chair of its Capital Fundraising Committee in the late 1990s, early 2000s, notes that the Boonoonoonos Brunch was the brainchild of an ad hoc group established by the board, under the leadership of then president, Herman Stewart. 

The organization had recently acquired 995 Arrow Road and “the committee’s mandate was to go beyond JCA members, to corporations and other individuals, to raise moneys towards our “Building to Serve” funds,” writes Collins in an article about the history of the brunch.

At the time, the committee members were Erma Collins, Paul Barnett, Vincent Conville, Dr. Buddy McIntosh, Dr. Ezra Nesbeth, Lana Salmon-Jones, Herman Stewart, Sandra Whiting, and Patricia Williams. 

The idea for a Celebrity Brunch to take place during Black History Month got its catchy name ‘Boonoonoonos’ from Whiting who suggested it to the group.

 “I have always felt that we have such fantastic names in our language and I love ‘boonoonoonos’ because it’s joyful and it’s happy and it’s bright. It just says possibilities so that was why I thought it would be good, says Whiting on the telephone one week before she hosts the virtual event on February 21, 2021. 

This year, three people – Dr. Upton Allen, Letna Allen-Rowe and the late Denise Jones -- will be recognized for their outstanding contribution to the community. 

Dr. Allen is the Head of Division of Infectious Diseases at SickKids Hospital, a professor at the University of Toronto and sits on numerous health–related committees. He has a long history of contributions to the African Canadian and wider community. 

Dr. Allen is currently the lead for a team of researchers that are conducting large-scale antibody testing and data collection to understand the prevalence of COVID-19 infection in Black Canadian communities. He is also a member of The Black Scientists' Task Force on Vaccine Equity that was recently created to address vaccine hesitancy among Black people of African and Caribbean origins.

Photo contributed    Letna Allen-Rowe, Artist and Community Advocate

Allen-Rowe is a performing artist and community advocate who is passionate about diversity, equity and inclusion. 

She established the “Ms Letna Healing Hope Fundraising Brunch’’ in 2013 after she received treatment for breast cancer at Scarborough’s Centenary Hospital. Over the years, the brunch has raised more than $50,000, which was donated to cancer care in Canada and the Caribbean. 

Allen-Rowe is the recipient of several awards, including Leading Women – Building Communities Award from the Province of Ontario, the 100 ABC Women Award and on August 6, 2020, Independence day, she was appointed to the Order of Distinction (O.D) by the Government of Jamaica “for outstanding service to the Jamaican Diaspora in Canada.” 

“The late Denise Jones was a vital force in the Jamaican-Canadian community. Denise was a dynamic music promoter, artist, actress, cultural archivist, educator, booking agent, storyteller, philanthropist, and promoter of all things Jamaican,” says the Boonoonoonos Brunch Planning Committee. 

“She was an iconic figure in the Jamaican Canadian community, the world of reggae and the Black entertainment scene, producing and promoting many top artists. The JCA Boonoononos Bruch was one of the beneficiaries of Denise’s event planning and execution expertise. Well known as the organizer of the Air Jamaica Day and later Jambana Music Festival, Denise’s contribution to the community was recognized by the Ontario Legislature and the Government of Canada after her death.”

Photo contributed   Denise Jones, The late Founder and CEO of Jones & Jones Productions Ltd.

In her recount of the first Celebrity Brunch, popularly known as the Boonoonoonos Brunch, Collins says, “We defined “celebrity” as those among us who had excelled in different fields like medicine, law, engineering, media, finance, education, entrepreneurship, politics, technology, arts & entertainment, sports, hospitality, labour, human resource management, and so on.

 “We decided to have a celebrity at every table. There would be minimal if any entertainment. We wanted people to interact with the celebrity and with one another. There would be Black History quizzes; people would be asked to make up limericks, to sing songs, to have fun—all facilitated by the celebrity.” 

The inaugural Boonoonoonos Brunch and Brawta was held on February 20, 2000, and as Collins notes it was a knockout affair with 47 celebrity hosts in attendance. The patron was the late Lincoln Alexander and former Canadian citizenship judge Stanley Grizzle said grace. 

Collins writes that: “MC Sandra Whiting did an excellent job getting celebrities to lead their tables in singing songs from assigned themes; to answer items from the quiz (prepared by Vincent Conville); to expand one or two given lines into a limerick (prepared by Erma Collins); and to pay whatever amount of money she decided, whenever she decided that the job was not up to par or was too well done. People left with wide grins on their faces and with the request that JCA “do it again next year.” 

The event netted $11,052, with the help of various sponsors from the community. In 2001, the committee repeated the brunch and had Lincoln Alexander and the late Beverly Mascoll as patrons. 

In her recollection, Collins notes that, “A celebrity that year, Raynier Maharaj of The Caribbean Camera, wrote: “If you missed the fundraising Boonoonoonos Brunch and Brawta, you missed out. It was a grand time, with celebrities at every table where, betwixt and between nibbling on delicacies like curried goat and green fig, we had to get the folks to do something outrageous…..The real star was Pride’s Van Cooten, who got up on the stage to render us all speechless with a beautiful song.”” 

Being one the longest standing Black community organizations in the GTA, the JCA says it is important to participate in Black History Month activities, providing “an opportunity to celebrate the many achievements and contributions of Black Canadians and to recognize the past and present contributions in such areas as education, medicine, art, culture, public service, economic development, politics and human rights."

 The Jamaican Canadian Association delivers programs and services and advocates to improve the well-being and equity of Jamaican, Caribbean and African-Canadians within the Greater Toronto Area.

 It is also a physical hub for the provision and hosting of various cultural, educational and social activities. The annual brunch in recognition and celebration of Black History Month is one such activity. 

Collins notes that the Boonoonoonos Brunch has also been produced by Jones and Jones, as well as by Sandra Whiting and Associates, and “has morphed from an interactive event to an entertainment-based one. But it has endured.” 

The glossary in Jamaica Labrish: Jamaica Dialect Poems by Louise Bennett with notes and introduction by Rex Nettleford defines “boonoonoonos” as a “term of endearment meaning pretty, beautiful; also pleasant, lovely, nice.”