Play about Viola Desmond presented where story began

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Nawa Nicole Simon, left, plays Viola Desmond as she is arrested by police chief Elmo Langille, played by Donald Brandy, at the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow in 1946. The Firebrand Theatre showed “Other People’s Heaven” at the New Glasgow Junior High Thursday. Jennifer Vardy Little – The News

NEW GLASGOW – Bringing his play “Other People’s Heaven” to New Glasgow was a dream come true for Beau Dixon.

Dixon is the playwright and director of the play, which is a historical fiction based on the night Halifax beautician Viola Desmond was arrested in the Roseland Theatre in New Glasgow.

The play was performed in more than 35 locations in Ontario during Black History Month in 2010, where many people had never heard of Desmond or her plight in New Glasgow on the night of Nov. 8, 1946. This is the first time it’s been brought to Nova Scotia.

“It’s wonderful and inspiring, and I’m very much honoured as a playwright to be in the place where this all happened,” said Dixon. “You do the research and to take the play to the place where it all happened, to get the nuances of it all and make it authentic, is a playwright’s dream.”

Dixon, who also directs the three-person play with the Firebrand Theatre in Toronto, spoke to students at New Glasgow Junior High School after performing “Other People’s Heaven” at the school Thursday afternoon.

“Ever since I can remember, whenever plays would come to schools when I was a kid, it was always inspiring,” he said. “It entertains and educates and we known that if something is acted out, it’s absorbed more than if you’re just told about it. I want to carry that on to the kids and, hopefully, I’ve inspired them. If I can motivate one kid, I’ll feel I made a difference.”

The play was shown again in the evening at Glasgow Square Theatre and Dixon will do a reading of the play today at the New Glasgow Library.

While in town, he also plans to take the actors to the Roseland Theatre, now a cabaret, where the incident occurred.

The play is a historical fiction; while the essential facts are drawn from the history that night, the dialogue and some of the plot are from Dixon’s imagination. For instance, the play features the character of Irene Sweenie, Desmond’s cellmate, who was created for the purposes of the play.

“She was there by herself overnight,” said Bridget Gillespie, who played Sweenie. “There were other people there, drunk men, she was in the drunk tank, if you will. I’m sure she didn’t sleep.”

Dixon says he admires Desmond.

“Not only was she a woman of colour, but it was one thing for a male to own a business or work in an office in the 1940s. For a woman in the ’40s to have her own line of beauty products was quite a feat,” he said. “I find her very inspiring, she was quite an independent woman.”

Organizations: Roseland Theatre, Firebrand Theatre, New Glasgow Junior High School Glasgow Square Theatre

Geographic location: NEW GLASGOW, New Glasgow.The, Ontario Nova Scotia Toronto

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  • Earl MacKenzie
    February 03, 2012 - 17:03

    Historical fiction is a way to portray a true story using fictional characters, etc. The play was based on facts but used a fictional character, Sweenie, to help the audience understand what Viola experienced. The play was excellent!!

  • Margaret E.
    February 03, 2012 - 04:35

    I think it would AMAZING to watch the Play “Other People’s Heaven” at the place where it began .. Roseland Cabaret .. aka Roseland Theater.

    • Barb
      February 03, 2012 - 10:08

      I understood this to be a true story ,why is it called 'historical fiction'?