A new play explores the life of Viola Desmond

Viola Desmond is immortalized on a Canadian stamp and a $10 bill. A Halifax Transit ferry is named after the African Nova Scotian woman. Most know her for the incident in 1946, when police dragged her out of a New Glasgow movie theatre after she refused to leave the whites-only section.
She challenged Nova Scotian laws around racial segregation and helped inspire the civil rights movement in the province. But playwright Andrea Scott sees the Halifax-born entrepreneur as an ordinary woman who stood up for her own rights and paid a price for it.
“Viola Desmond had to leave town,” she says. “Her marriage ended. She died quite young.”
Scott is an award-winning writer and producer based in Toronto. For the last four years, she’s been working on a play about about Desmond, who died in 1965 at the age of 50.
She’s delighted that Controlled Damage will have its world premiere at Neptune Theatre, running from Feb. 4–23.
Controlled Damage is not a historical biography. “It’s not paint-by-numbers,” Scott says. “There’s some fictionalized aspects. We don’t know everything that happened in the theatre. We don’t know everything that happened between her and her husband. The root of the play is personal, instead of political.”
What history records about Desmond’s life underpins the story, though. “We know she came from a big family, got married young, went to beauty school,” Scott says. “She researched and developed her own beauty products, started her own school and travelled to three provinces to sell her products. Those are interesting facts that I use as a tentpole. But I want her to be a real human being.”
It wasn’t until Scott started putting music in Controlled Damage that she began to see how the play would unfold. “Music always ran through [Viola’s] life,” she explains. “Even when things were not perfect there was always light and song and the church in her.”
Director Nigel Shawn Williams agrees the church has always been one of the most important things in the Halifax Black community, citing the way the community rallied around following the destruction of the Africville church.
“The music of the Maritimes is a great commonality. It binds communities. And there is a lot of music in Controlled Damage, a lot of songs. They bridge the transitions between the scenes.”
Deborah Castrilli, who plays Desmond, is excited about the way the music is layered into the play. She grew up in a musical family, explored musical theatre at Citadel High School with roles in How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Urinetown, and started singing in the choir in Grade 12.
She didn’t think theatre was something she could do professionally, so she studied biochemistry at Dalhousie University. But her dreams came true when she made her debut in the chorus of Mamma Mia at Neptune Theatre, followed by an ensemble role in Cinderella.
Playing aspiring singer Squeak in The Color Purple, her most recent Neptune role, was a “life-changing experience,” she recalls. “The vocals, the stories, sharing Black women’s experiences…everything was so incredible and I’m grateful to have been a part of that.”
Castrilli, who plans to move to Toronto this year, wasn’t initially going to audition for Controlled Damage. “I was convinced I was too young,” she says, noting researching Desmond’s life in preparation for the audition made her feel more confident.
Desmond didn’t see herself as an activist or an icon, concludes Castrilli. “I think she was a regular person, living her life to the best of her ability, living her truth. I admire her tenacity, her strength, the fact she was always growing. I’m looking forward to channelling such a beautiful spirit.”
When Scott first started writing the play, she was worried Desmond seemed too perfect. “I didn’t want to write her as if she was a saint. I needed to find the humanity,” she says. “People watching want to root for the underdog.”
And the playwright was surprised and disappointed to learn Desmond’s husband didn’t support her. “I can’t imagine what that felt like,” she says. “How heartbreaking if the person you are married to doesn’t support you. It must have been crippling to her.”
Viola Desmond and her husband, Jack, plus Pearly Oliver and his wife Pearleen, are the only real people in Controlled Damage, which follows Desmond’s life from the age of 18 to her death. The rest of the characters are fictional.
Williams (a three-time Dora Award-winning actor with multiple performances at the Stratford and Shaw festivals) and Neptune Theatre artistic director Jeremy Webb sought local actors for the production. “There are only two out-of-town actors in the cast of 10,” Williams says.
Williams says he thinks it’s important to premiere the work in Halifax where there is a greater personal connection to “a universal story centred in a story that comes from Halifax. It talks about the racism and misogyny that was systemically practiced in Canada. Jim Crow laws were practised here.”
And their legacy lingers. “We are still living in a time when prejudice, racism, and misogyny are rampant,” he says.
Scott hopes people watching will be inspired, to feel they can do anything if they believe in themselves, have integrity and strength.
“Instead of being invited to the table, she built her own table. When you see a woman like that, you can’t help but be inspired,” Scott says. “Just because a person is ordinary doesn’t mean they aren’t extraordinary.”

This story was originally published in Halifax Magazine.

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