“THE STORY OF MIXED RACE KIDS IS HARDLY EVER TOLD”
Winnipeg actor, playwright and director Cherissa Richards has an ongoing love affair with theatre for young audiences.
“I’ve always had a warm place in my heart for TYA [Theatre for Young Audiences]. Student audiences demand you to be honest and truthful in the telling,” says Richards. “There’s nowhere to hide.”
Richards knows this from experience. All of her firsts took place at MTYP while working with Theatre for Young Audiences, including her first professional performance as an actor and a director (in separate productions of The Power of Harriet T) and as a playwright (she co-wrote Torn Through Time along with Carrie Costello and Frances Koncan). MTYP audiences may also recognize Richards from her most recent MTYP appearance in The House at Pooh Corner.
“MTYP’s audiences are not always polite,” laughs the multi-talented Winnipeg artist. “They tell you what they think. You have to work really hard as an artist to get them involved in your work. Kids can only tell the truth about what they are feeling. They aren’t afraid to respond, to cry, to be excited, to react, to shout out, to enjoy. Plus you see the change that you make in front of you.”
While co-writing Torn Through Time for MTYP in 2018, Richards found that she really enjoyed the creation process. The show featured a young girl ripping out the pages of a library book, which brought to life three female historical trailblazers.
Her experience during Torn Through Time made her eager for more. “It was quite serendipitous, because I’ve always wanted to write. Working with other playwrights was a great way for me to find my voice.”
Richards has begun research for a new play, which she has titled Colour Rich. It follows the young lives of three Winnipeg girls, as they negotiate their identity and place in the world.
She is once again working with Costello, who is acting as her writing mentor. As part of her process, Richards will be interviewing children of mixed race and integrating their stories into her new play. “I have to do the interviews first and once I have a draft, we’ll start doing workshops at MTYP’s building and see where it takes us.”
Richards identifies as half Mennonite, half Black. Her father was from the Caribbean and her mother was from a Mennonite family from Morris, Manitoba.
“The story of mixed race kids is hardly ever told. It’s very rare,” she says. “Yet when I look at the landscape, most kids are mixed race. There’s something beautiful about these stories. I’ve spent my life in varying degrees of blackness and whiteness. Recently a fellow artist explained mixed race to me as you’re not half of one and half of the other, you are colour rich. You are full of both of these races. I find that idea to be so inspiring.”
Colour Rich will explore the past, present and future of characters feeling split because of their mixed race. The characters exist in a world where otherness is under attack and grow from the feeling of being pulled in different directions by their cultures, to embracing all aspects of themselves.
“I didn’t consider myself an activist before George Floyd’s death,” says Richards, adding that the Black Lives Matter movement which burgeoned out of this death has had a profound effect on her. “It’s really important to me to be part of the change that is happening in this moment and in our city right now. I want to be at the forefront of helping to make change.
“Recently, I had this young girl who saw me in Harriet T say ‘I’m an actor now because of you.’ We have to be beacons for our people. We have to get the message out that ‘You have a place, you have a home.’”
Richards feels that MTYP is the obvious place for her to develop her latest project. “MTYP is a really inspiring place to create young people’s theatre. I’m always grateful to come back to MTYP. Being offered space to create there is incredible. It’s just so wonderful.”