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Delivering history in Harbord Village

April 16th, 2015 · No Comments

Photo: Neiland Brissenden, Gleaner News

Photo: Neiland Brissenden, Gleaner News

HVRA lane-naming project leads to The Postman

By Annemarie Brissenden

There are nearly 500 miles between Miliford, Del. and St. Catharines, Ont. These days, it would take approximately 10 hours to drive a highway that meanders through New Jersey, Pennsylvania, and then New York, before finally reaching Ontario. One hundred and seventy-five years ago, it would have been a different matter altogether.

Imagine bundling up your seven children, ranging in age from three to 16, gathering your meagre possessions, and making the journey on foot. You travel at night, because you’re escaping slavery, and are being hunted. Should you not evade capture, you would be returned to a life in chains, or worse.

For Anne Maria Jackson and her children, who would eventually walk the equivalent of 20 marathons along the Underground Railroad, freedom would not be elusive. They would make it north and settle in Toronto, where the family would prosper.

The youngest child, Albert, would grow up to become the city’s first African-American postman. But that success would not come without struggles of a different sort. Albert Jackson’s white colleagues refused to work with him, and it would take the intervention of Canada’s first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, to secure Jackson’s position at the post office. Jackson would remain in this role for the rest of his life, buying several houses in the greater Annex, which was also home to his postal route.

“It’s the largest family group ever to come to Canada [via the Underground Railroad],” explained David Ferry, the artistic director of Appledore Productions, which will debut The Postman, a promenade-style musical play that will recreate Albert Jackson’s life along local streets this summer.

Ferry first learned of the story following media coverage of the Harbord Village Residents’ Association’s Laneway Naming Project, which unearthed Albert Jackson’s story. Inspired as much by Jackson’s mother as by Jackson himself, Ferry promotes the play, in which different scenes will be performed from different porches along Jackson’s postal route in Harbord Village and the Palmerston Avenue area, with infectious enthusiasm.

In workshops, he bubbles with energy, and just can’t help himself from dancing along as the cast rehearses the musical numbers. Such ebullience is necessary as he marshals community members to help with logistics and volunteer their front yards for performances, and collaborates with seven playwrights of diverse backgrounds on the script.

“It’s my first experience working almost in a collective. You’re trying to be distinct in your writing, yet finding a singular voice,” explained Leah Simone-Bowen, Obsidian Theatre’s artistic producer, one of the play’s writers. Layne Coleman, who’s playing Sir John A. Macdonald, also spoke about Ferry’s unique approach. “There’s not harmony in the way the story telling usually is,” said Coleman, “but David is threading it all together with music, [which] adds some unity.” Coleman, who has played Sir John A. several times before, believes there is “something particularly mythic about the Jackson family.” Like Ferry, he’s inspired by their horrifying and remarkable journey.

“Consider what it’s like to walk 500 miles at night in the northeastern states pursued by very unscrupulous people,” he said, adding he’s learned so much about the history of Toronto, and the deep roots of the city’s Black community thanks to the play.

“Learning that there was so much history, and Black history, was stunning to me,” echoed Simone-Bowen. In some ways, “[Jackson’s] story is such a specific story,” but in others, “it’s very similar to every immigrant story ever,” she added.

“It is such an empowering story overall,” said Laurence Dean Ifill, the actor playing Albert Jackson. Not an at-risk youth while growing up (“my father was and still is a beautiful role model”) he believes “stories like this should be told. “Would it make a difference to someone?” wondered Ifill, who has always been interested in historical pieces when it comes to theatre.

He has been involved in The Postman ever since Ferry brought the idea to him while they both working on a Eugene O’Neill play three years ago. “[The play] is like a journey for me,” said Ifill.

Moved by the life Jackson and his wife built in the Annex, the actor notes how the end of Jackson’s journey is as inspiring as its beginning. Jackson and his wife achieved so much, and built such a life here. “They made a beautiful team,” he said. “All because his mother decided to escape. That’s beautiful.”

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