WHAT IS BREC?
Blackface Resistance Entertainment in Canada (BREC) is a research site and archive created by Dr. Cheryl Thompson at Toronto Metropolitan University (TMU). As a professor at The Creative School, Dr. Cheryl’s research aims to disrupt, critique, and challenge the history of entertainment in North America by pinpointing how, where, when, and why blackface is at the centre of many of its productions, performers, and products. At the same time, BREC tries to tell the concurrent story of Black resistance to anti-Blackness in entertainment - at the professional theatre, in the community, and on stages small and large. For some, this pairing is contradictory. For others, it is offensive. Dr. Cheryl did not create BREC without concern for these critiques. Regarding the former, anti-Blackness and Black protest, community-building, and resistance have always co-exist, co-mingled, and overlapped. This explains why, in the nineteenth century for instance, newspapers reported on minstrel shows at the same time they reported on Emancipation Day events in Black communities. To the latter point, blackface is offensive; there is just no other way to say it. However, Dr. Cheryl believes that by showcasing the talents, resilience and determination of Black communities it will put blackface’s latent racism into plain sight, for their very existence denies claims of blackface “not being about Black people.”
Since 2012, Dr. Cheryl has been studying the history of blackface in Canada. That year, she won the Fred and Betty Price Research Award at the McCord Museum in Montreal to examine the Notman Photographic Archive and the Paintings, Prints and Drawings collection. While at first the curatorial staff worried about the collections’ depth, there were photographs, advertising prints, posters, political cartoons, and portraits that all revealed a deep and long history of blackface minstrelsy in Montreal. Dr. Cheryl expanded this work during a Banting Postdoctoral Fellowship at the University of Toronto and University of Toronto Mississauga in 2016 to 2018 working under the supervision of Dr. Stephen Johnson. During that project, Dr. Cheryl conducted research at the University of Toronto’s Microfiche Collection, Thomas Fisher Rare Books Library, Toronto Reference Library’s Theatre Archives, the Archives of Ontario, and the City Archives of Toronto. On more than one occasion, some of the images and visual ephemera collected for BREC came from individuals who, upon hearing about the project, recalled minstrel shows they either attended as a child or a family member participated in when they were younger.
BREC is made possible through a Social Sciences Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) Insight Development Grant (2019-2021). Titled, “Newspapers, Minstrelsy and Black Performance at the Theatre: Mapping the Spaces of Nation-Building in Toronto, 1870s to 1930s,” With this grant, Dr. Cheryl collected community playbills of blackface performances, and with the assistance of research assistants - Lucy, Emilie, Carianne, and Enna - she created a database of newspaper clippings and images - and a 6-part Youtube video series, which can be found on BREC. The final outcome of this decade’s long work will be an academic book on Canada’s untold history of blackface.
WHY THIS WORK MATTERS
You cannot change what you will not acknowledge. Blackface is a Canadian tradition; it is not singularly an American import. While professional minstrel performers brought it here in the 1860s, local-born acts soon followed with their own blackface repertoire. Most notably, Toronto-born Colin “Cool” Burgess (1840 – 1905) who put on blackface to sing at the Royal Lyceum in the chorus of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which American Denman Thompson played “Uncle Tom” and Charlotte Nickinson (1832–1910), one of Canada’s first female thespians, also performed in blackface as “Eliza,” the enslaved African American who escapes to Canada in the novel.
BREC aims to tell a modern story of the past that does not singularly prioritize the point of view of white Canadians as holders of “the truth” but rather it situates the dominant history of both English and French Canada alongside Black Canadians in order to tell a more holistic story about the history of Canada. While this admittedly still omits Indigenous histories, as well as other racialized groups, Dr. Cheryl hopes that the information contained here will create new pathways of connection that are intercultural and intergenerational. History is complex and it does not belong to one group. It is a collective experience. By directly confronting the myths and nostalgic views of the past that have kept many from seeing people, especially Black people - our communities, and our contributions to the Canadian narrative as they were, not as they have been narrated - BREC has as its overall intention the widening of the Canadian imagination.