The B.C. Human Rights Tribunal has determined a racial discrimination complaint against the Victoria Theatre will proceed.
Complainant Tenyjah Indra McKenna says she was denied a role in a Victoria production because she is black. In August 2017, McKenna emailed director Judy Treloar about auditioning for a role in a local production of Les Belles-Soeurs, a two-act play about four sisters living in Montreal in the 1960s.
The play was being produced through the Victoria Theatre Guild and Dramatic School [Victoria Theatre or the Langham Court Theatre], a non-profit community theatre group that has presented more than 500 shows with approximately 4,000 actors since 1929.
Tribunal documents released in November say that when Treloar learned McKenna was black, she said that “a black woman could not be a sister or neighbour in the play.”
An excerpt from her email correspondence reads: “As much as I do not like saying this, the fifteen women in this play are Quebecois women and the play is set in Montreal in 1965. A black woman would not be a neighbour or a sister in this play, however, I would love to meet you and hear you read.”
Treloar says her comments were specific to the neighbourhood where the play takes place and denies discriminating against McKenna. She also claims she apologized and offered to meet with the actress.
In McKenna’s emailed response she suggested Treloar was adhering to the outdated tradition of casting only white women in these roles.
“I also wonder – if you are hesitant to cast a black actor to ensure historical accuracy, how many Quebecois or French‐speaking actors will you be casting?” she wrote.
The Victoria Theatre says it offered McKenna a “reasonable settlement” and made structural changes to address future complaints and “ensure their productions would be more diverse and inclusive.”
In meeting with the group’s general manager and production co-chair after the incident, McKenna asked that Treloar be removed as director.
Treloar was not removed and the play went ahead at the Langham Court Theatre from Nov. 15 to Dec. 2, 2017.
In September 2017, McKenna filed a complaint against both the theatre and Treloar.
In June 2018, the Victoria Theatre made a “with prejudice” settlement offer which included information on updated diversity and communication training and a $1,500 settlement offer to McKenna for injury to her “feelings and self-respect.”
To date, McKenna has not responded to the settlement offer.
Tribunal member Beverly Froese denied both the theatre and Treloar’s applications to have the complaints dismissed, calling the $1,500 settlement offer “not within the reasonable range” and submitting that even after the theatre became aware of and condemned Treloar’s comments, “no steps were taken to ensure that [her] casting decisions were made in an appropriate and non-discriminatory manner.”
Froese writes, “Treloar maintains her belief that having an all‐white cast in the play is historically accurate and appropriate because it is consistent with previous productions of the play across the country.”
Froese also points to Treloar’s submission that she had offered her resignation but was convinced to stay on as director because the theatre “supported her artistic vision for its presentation.”
In her decision, Froese says “given the nature of the allegations and the often subtle and insidious nature of racial discrimination, a full evidentiary hearing is required to consider whether the remedial actions taken by the respondents adequately remedied the alleged discrimination.”
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