Hey Viola! A Melodic Tribute to Viola Desmond's Unwavering Spirit

October 13, 2023

Discover the history behind the face on the $10 bill through a captivating blend of story and song in Hey Viola! Viola Desmond - The Soundtrack of a Life.

In tribute to Viola Desmond, the Canadian civil-rights activist, Musical TheatreWorks’ groundbreaking production takes centre stage in Courtenay on Wednesday, November 1. Presented by the Sid Williams Theatre Society as part of their Blue Circle Series, the piece offers a musical exploration that goes beyond her iconic image.

Leading the cast is co-creator Krystle Dos Santos. She and co-creator and artistic director Tracey Power poured their hearts into bringing this vision to life.

It started in 2017, when the pair were working together on another project. Power, a native of Comox Valley, shares, “We were hearing so much in the press about Viola Desmond being the face of the new $10 bill, but there wasn’t enough about who she was, and why her. We wanted to create a piece, myself and Krystle, that would help us get to know her, but [would also give] the audience a more personal relationship with somebody whose face they now see when they go into their wallet.”

This curiosity propelled them into a year-long research journey, navigating the challenges posed by the scarcity of documented history from that era, particularly for women and people of color. Relying heavily on a biography written by Desmond’s sibling, Wanda Robson, the narrative eventually took shape.

Dos Santos underscores the significance of sharing this story, saying, “Viola Desmond was a groundbreaking, ahead-of-her-time entrepreneur who served her community to create better opportunities for Black women – that alone is so remarkable. What we ‘know’ her for, the assault and arrest at [New Glasgow, Nova Scotia’s] Roseland movie theatre, however, is an incredibly important lesson in our history and highlights a form of silent and systemic racism we are still facing today. Telling Viola’s story humanizes her story and her $10-bill fame to a person who was brave, giving and strong but was broken by a system that refused to see her humanity because of the color of her skin.”

While the story shares Desmond’s life before and after the 1946 incident at the theatre, the heartbeat of the play is the music. It echoes the era Viola lived in, featuring the soulful sounds of legendary artists like Nina Simone and Sam Cooke, who used their music to advocate against racial injustice.

Set in Harlem music club Small’s Paradise, the ambiance of a bygone era vividly comes to life through their artistry as Dos Santos and a supporting trio that includes musical director Steve Charles seamlessly move through gospel, jazz and freedom songs.  

“The music of her lifetime is within this piece,” says Power, noting it adds a potent layer to the narrative while forging an emotional connection with the audience. Importantly, Hey Viola! remains firmly grounded in factual accuracy. “We have a creative conceit that helps us bring all the music into the show, but everything inside of that device is fact, and it’s her life.”

Creating a play steeped in authenticity was paramount for the team. Power says, “We didn't want anything false in there...we didn't want to make up anything.” She notes that every word and scene were meticulously crafted to honour Viola’s truth and ensure an accurate portrayal of her legacy.

For Dos Santos, an award-winning blues and jazz singer who has ventured out of the recording studio and onto the theatrical stage more in recent years, this show offered a distinctive approach that resonated deeply. She describes it as a conversational, historical musical approach, akin to being in Viola’s living room, chatting about her life and witnessing firsthand how her experiences shaped her.

Portraying Desmond has been a personal experience for her. “Viola’s shoulders are among those upon which I stand. I wish I had known her story growing up because it would’ve totally changed my confidence and mindset. Being able to share that story with young people and give them that foundation at a young age is so powerful, as well as members of all ages, who are enlightened, educated and moved by her story. I couldn’t think of more valuable and fulfilling work for myself.”

For the audience, Power notes the experience is nothing short of revelatory, transcending boundaries and demographics. “I think it’s for everybody, and you can’t say that about every show.” Particularly, students have eagerly embraced the opportunity to learn about Viola Desmond, reflecting a growing awareness and appreciation for her pivotal role in Canadian history.

Dos Santos often engages with the audience post-performance and says the emotional impact of the play has been profound.

“There have been so many instances where people come out crying or can hardly speak to me because of how emotional they are. But the most incredible encounter I had was from Viola’s nephew, Wanda Robson’s son Gordon. He came up to me after the show at the Gateway Theatre in Richmond and said, ‘You got almost every single detail right, except for the fact that my grandfather never sang – he couldn’t sing a lick’… That’s when I realized he was Wanda’s son, and I just started immediately tearing up. It was such a powerful moment.”

Come be part of an experience that leaves an indelible mark on hearts and minds alike.