It was Carey Nicholson, Artistic Director of Port Perry’s Theatre on the Ridge, who encouraged me to reach out to Jewelle Blackman for a conversation. As soon as Carey mentioned Jewelle’s name, I remembered this lady who was the Assistant Director for ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ in Oshawa, Ontario, Canada several years ago. In an email Jewelle sent to me, she told me she was considering looking into directing at that time and found the experience of working on ‘Superstar’ at the Oshawa Little Theatre a ‘great experience’.
Jewelle appeared in the Tony/Grammy winning original Broadway company of Hadestown playing the role of “Fate”. She is now playing the role of Persephone in the Broadway company.
I won’t spoil her answer here in what was happening when the Broadway theatres were closed. She is a multi-talented artist from Toronto who has played the violin for more than 30 years and graduated from Queen’s University with a Double Major in Music & Film. She also completed a Summer Performance Certificate Program at Berklee College of Music.
Other favourite credits include The Who’s Tommy (Acid Queen); Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (Jewelle) both at the Stratford Shakespeare Festival; We Will Rock You (Teacher); The Lion KIng (Nala/Shenzi) Mirvish; The Wizard of Oz (Mrs. Banks) Young Peoples Theatre; Dreamgirls (Deena Jones) The Grand Theatre/Stage West. Film/TV: Nine Lives; The Coroner; Kim’s Convenience; Shadowhunters.
We conducted our interview via email:
It has been an exceptionally long five months since we’ve all been in isolation, and now it appears the numbers are edging upward again. How are you feeling about this? Will we ever emerge to some new way of living in your opinion?
I’m trying to take it day by day. If I try to plan too far ahead it becomes somewhat overwhelming because how can I plan for the future when the present is so uncertain and unpredictable? Covid has been around a lot longer than I think any of us truly expected and there is no definite end in sight at this point in time.
That’s a lot to swallow.
Will we emerge to a new way of living? We already are, aren’t we? We’re all adapting as best we can and navigating the unknown some days with more hope than despair. The situation is fluid.
As I always say the only thing constant is change.
How have you been faring? How has your immediate family been doing during these last six months?
Some days good, some days not so good. March and April were particularly difficult. But early on I participated in a virtual group mediation group which I think really helped to calm me and force me to look at and approach life with a new eyes.
My immediate family have already remained healthy which I am very grateful for. I have also been navigating a lot of personal changes which greatly affect my son and myself. But we are all here still thriving.
As an artist within the performing arts community, what has been the most difficult and challenging for you professionally and personally?
I would say being seen, recognized and appreciated as an artist. People have their opinions of you and what your limits are based on your sex or for me, specifically my race. It feels like a constant battle at times.
Personally, this affects how I view myself and my worth. I'm working on this because regardless I should feel strong and confident in my value regardless of what others think or believe.
Were you in preparation, rehearsals, or any planning stages of productions before everything was shut down? What has become of those projects? Will they see the light of day anytime soon?
Well as I was on Broadway in Hadestown’, I will never forget March 12. I was in the middle of my last understudy rehearsal for the role of “Persephone”. My put-in was the following day along with another understudy and the producers literally walked in on us and announced the news. We were all shocked...I think we all knew and felt that something was going to happen, but the reality of it all struck really hard.
I believe that Broadway will re-open again and Hadestown will be there in full force, and I will get to bring my “Persephone” to life….I just don't know when.
What have you been doing to keep yourself busy during this time?
Hanging out with my 9-year-old son Zion. Working on my own passion projects. Hanging with my family. Supporting the “Black Lives Matter” movement…. And walks...I take lots of walks to clear my head when it begins to feel like too much. I've also done quite a few online performances. Oh, and auditioning for film/tv quite a bit.
Any words of wisdom or advice you might /could give to fellow performers and colleagues? What message would you deliver to recent theatre school graduates who have now been set free into this unknown and uncertainty given the fact live theaters and studios might be closed for 1 ½ - 2 years?
Spring will come again….this pause is an opportunity to really focus on what about this business really fuels you. What can you do to change it and make it a more just and equitable and comfortable space for all performers. Especially your colleagues and friends of colour.
Theatre will re-emerge and thrive...but the goal should not be to go back to before but to go forward with the intention of change.
Do you see anything positive stemming from Covid 19?
Personally, this has given me so much more time with my son which is so valuable and that I am entirely grateful for. On a global level it has definitely seen the rise of voices that have been silenced for so long the opportunity to be heard, and also the chance for people to reflect on how their own actions in the past may have been hurtful or detrimental to others.
Do you think Covid 19 will have some lasting impact on the Toronto/Canadian/North American performing arts scene?
I think more care and concern will be given to what stories are shared on stages and that it is not white male-dominated any longer on stage, behind the scenes and in boardrooms….that is my hope.
Some artists have turned to YouTube and online streaming to showcase their work. What are your comments and thoughts about streaming? Is this something that the actor/theatre may have to utilize going forward into the unknown?
If it works for you definitely do it. If it feeds your soul do it. Just remember to get compensated. This is your gift and your craft and your career. It has value and it has worth and should not be consumed for free.
Donating your art is one thing but being paid for a service that is provided should also not be ignored.
Despite all this fraught tension and confusion, what is it about performing that Covid will never destroy for you?
The ability to create.
The ability to share.
No matter the size of the audience...there is a feeling that nothing, not even Covid can dampen.
You can follow Jewelle on social media :@elleshelley on Instagram AND @jewelleblackman on Twitter.