PGC's Q&A with Anthony Sherwood
Playwrights Guild of Canada talks to PGC member, Anthony Sherwood about his recent work, Titanic: The Untold Story. Anthony Sherwood also discusses how he approached researching the story of Joseph Laroche, the only Black person aboard the ill-fated ship when it went down, and the importance of including music in productions.
1) In your work, Titanic: The Untold Story, you chronicle the little known story of Joseph Laroche, the only Black person aboard the Titanic. What attracted you to him?
I discovered the story of Joseph Laroche when I was in Halifax two years ago. I never knew there was a black who sailed aboard the Titanic. I was attracted to his story because Joseph Laroche was born in Haiti and my wife happens to be Haitian. I always had a fascination with Haitian culture and history. What was intriguing about Laroche’s story was that he came from a very wealthy family in Haiti (his uncle was the President of Haiti). How he happened to land aboard the Titanic was an interesting story and how he managed to save his wife and children was even more fascinating.
2) How did you approach researching this work? What were your major sources of inspiration?
Joseph Laroche went to Paris when he was only 15 years old to study engineering. He married a French woman and they had two daughters and a son. The daughters never married or had children and passed away. The son had travelled abroad and was never heard of. Because my wife’s family had important connections in Haiti, I decided to research his story from Haiti. Joseph Laroche’s wife survived the tragedy and wrote letters to Joseph’s mother in Haiti telling what happened to her family while they were aboard the Titanic. With the help of my wife’s family in Haiti, I managed to secure these letters. The letters became the inspiration for me to tell this story. The letters were first-hand account of what the Laroche family experienced while they were aboard the Titanic.
3) What are the main themes that you had hoped to uncover through this research?
Some of the main themes I had hoped to uncover were the determination and courage that people aboard the Titanic had to display during a terrible tragedy. Yes, Joseph Laroche was the only black man to sail aboard the Titanic. And yes, he encountered cruel racism aboard the ship, but the important aspect of his story is that it exemplified the courage and the ultimate sacrifice that so many people aboard the Titanic had to make.
4) You included the song ‘Titanic’ by Blues legend Lead Belly’s in the play. What importance do you place on song and music in your work?
Any time you can include music in the telling of a theatrical story, it adds a wonderful dimension to a play. Music has always been a major influence in my own family history so it was only natural for me to include music in this play.
5) Titanic: The Untold Story premiered in Halifax in April, as part of the official commemoration of the 100th Anniversary of the sinking. What was it like participating in such an emotional historic event?
The play premiered in Halifax and had an absolutely wonderful response. The City of Halifax and the whole province of Nova Scotia had planned dozens of events to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. The province was buzzing with activity and Nova Scotians were eager to participate in the many events that were organized. My choice of selecting Halifax for the world premiere was a no-brainer. That is where the majority of the victims of the Titanic are buried. Nova Scotia has a very close and sacred relationship with the Titanic. The rescue mission for the Titanic originated from Nova Scotia. Halifax is also the city of my birth so it was a real treat for me to come back home to premiere my play.
6) Do you have any suggestions for other playwrights who might be considering tackling historical characters and events?
My reasons for wanting to tell this story was simple. The whole world was commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the world’s most famous ship, yet most of the world didn’t know that a prominent black man sailed aboard the Titanic. Out of all the commemorative events that were organized around the world for the Titanic, my play was the only one that featured the story of a black person. I think when a playwright tackles an historical character or event, they must decide why this would be an interesting story to tell on stage and will it work on stage. The playwright must identify what are the conflicts and emotional drama in the story and how to bring them to life. To want to tell a story on stage simply because it was an important moment in history is insufficient. One must bring all the dramatic elements, interesting characters and emotional conflicts that will hopefully result in entertaining live theatre.
7) Are any future productions of Titanic: The Untold Story planned?
The play was also presented in Montreal at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts. We are also planning to take the play on an American tour. I am hoping to get the play translated into French so we can bring it to Paris and to Haiti.
8. Many authors have a favourite inspirational quote above their desk or something inscribed in a cherished notebook to keep their muse flowing and to drive their positive energies forward. Please share one of the quotes that has kept you going as a writer.
"Be yourself. Everyone else is taken." by Oscar Wilde.
Anthony Sherwood is an award-winning actor, writer, director and producer who has worked in the entertainment industry for over 35 years. His play, TITANIC: the Untold Story was produced in 2012 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic. Anthony wrote and directed this new play which premiered at the Alderney Landing Theatre in Nova Scotia.
Anthony has enjoyed a very successful career as an actor having performed in over 50 feature films, countless television programs and many highly successful stage plays. For five seasons, he portrayed the character of "Dillon Beck" in the award-winning CBC television series Street Legal, for which he received a Gemini nomination. American audiences will remember him in as "Jason Locke" in the popular American television series, Air Wolf. For seven seasons he was the host/narrator/writer/director for the Discovery Channel documentary television series, Forbidden Places which was nominated twice as Best Documentary Television series in Canada. Anthony has written, directed and produced several successful documentary films. His film Honour Before Glory won a Gemini Award and a prize at the Hollywood Black Film Festival. His musical documentary film, Music - A Family Tradition received a Gemini Award and was nominated for an International Emmy Award.
Anthony is a dedicated social activist and has been a spokesperson for the Federal Government on a number of issues including racism and diversity. He is the recipient of many awards including the Martin Luther King Achievement Award, the Harry Jerome Award, and the Planet Africa Award. In 1991, he formed his own production company, Anthony Sherwood Productions that specializes in the production of projects dealing with social justice, human rights issues, and projects about the African-Canadian experience. www.anthonysherwood.com