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Amen Corner concept familiar to Jamaican farmworkers

Jamaican farmworkers are familiar with churches on every street corner at home.
Gabe Williams (left), an employee of Reimer Farms, will be performing with the Shaw Gospel Choir at the BMO stage on Sunday Oct.1. Jeremiah Sparks and Alana Bridgewater are Shaw ensemble members, Yvonne Gordon has been an employee of Kai Wiens farms for 20 years, and Jenna Burke Cowan is a musician and daughter of Karen Burke, conductor of Toronto Mass Choir.

By generously providing tickets to a theatre performance, Shaw Festival once again showed their appreciation to the migrant farmworkers in our community.

When the lights dimmed at the Festival Theatre before Sunday’s production of The Amen Corner, Pragna Desai, outreach director, announced from the stage that it would be an unforgettable night. She was referring to the restructuring of the play into a reading due to illness of two of the lead actors. But it’s the bond of friendships made this day between Festival cast members and neighbours on the farms that will live on in the community’s memory.

The evolving drama of The Amen Corner was familiar to many who grew up in Jamaica where churches can be found on almost any corner. The Caribbean audience members leaned into the voices of the characters on stage, totally engrossed as the story unfolded.

With Jeremiah Sparks leading the choir on the keys, many in the audience found themselves surrounded by the deep rumble of men singing quietly along to their favourite hymns. The performance ended with a standing ovation.

Following the production, Shaw Festival had also arranged for the cast to meet their migrant neighbours and enjoy a jerk chicken dinner together on the VIP terrace, provided by Caribbean Eatery.

Sparks set up a keyboard and along with other Shaw musicians was soon leading the crowd with reggae and soul favourites.

Jenni Burke danced her way through the crowd, pumping the air with a bubble-maker, a little nod to her captivating performance in Gypsy.

J.J. Gerber and Alana Bridgewater cleared the dance floor with their energetic version of Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours), with everyone singing along.

The camaraderie of a shared heritage was the highlight of the season for our friends on the farms. 

It was an afternoon with many of us discovering unexpected connections. Shaw actors who had previously performed at Niagara’s Workers Welcome concerts under the direction of Karen Burke and the Toronto Mass Choir were now sharing a different stage.

It brought back to mind a conversation from 2018 when Tim Carroll and the Shaw Festival had invited farmworkers to see a play based on C.S. Lewis’  The Magician’s Nephew

The men had been in awe during the performance, many experiencing the magic unfold on stage for the first time. 

Later, after the crowd had dispersed, three of us stood under the lamplight on the street corner. Before we crossed, two of the actors playing the characters of Digory and Polly sped by on bicycles before disappearing down the darkened street. 

The two men at my side were astonished to see the lead actors on bicycles. They had expected they would be driving home in fancy cars or a limo. 

I explained that actors shared some of the same challenges in the sense that they are always on the move, searching for the next opportunity, and very few positions are permanent in their line of work. Many actors rely on bicycles as a dependable form of transportation as car ownership is a formidable expense when working in larger cities.

They are far from loved ones, depending on their coworkers to create that sense of family. I have heard comments repeatedly from actors in recent years that Tim Carroll and the management at Shaw Festival have created one of the most supportive theatre companies in North America for actors, both seasoned and new to the profession.

Whether actor or audience member, there beats in the heart of everyone the desire for human connection — it’s part of our very design. So is the need to express the beauty of that connection and have the ability to participate in that experience through the arts.

We are grateful to Shaw Festival for making this possible to so many.

Can I get an Amen?