Actress/producer Ngozi Paul loves to be challenged


Creative practitioners are always looking for new opportunities to express themselves.

When award-winning Canadian actress and producer Ngozi Paul’s agent informed her a few months ago that Canadian Stage was interested in her playing a role in its first production of the new season, she jumped at the opportunity.

The company, which celebrated its 20th anniversary last year, programs international contemporary theatre.

“My agent said the company had a new artistic director that has a new vision for Canadian Stage,” recalls Paul who splits her time between Toronto and Los Angeles. “That sounded interesting and it appealed to me because I also think this was a grand opportunity for me to get the word out there that Canadian Stage is for our community.”

Matthew Jocelyn, who seeks to re-define Canadian Stage as a home for great Canadian and international plays and trans-disciplinary theatre that push the boundaries of convention, is making his directorial debut in Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter: An Attempt at the Truth.

Jocelyn replaces Martin Bragg, who stepped down in March 2009 after 17 seasons with the company.

The play centres on Julia – played by Paul – who receives a letter from a mysterious millionaire stranger, calling her the most beautiful girl in the city and vowing to marry her.

“Though this story is sort of farcical and it challenges reality, love and power, it looks at issues we can relate to and it takes us into a completely fresh new setting,” said the two-time Gemini nominee. “As an actress, it’s really wonderful to be challenged and to do the kind of work I have not done before.

“I love theatre and I have been doing a play every year while I am doing film and TV. We can do the plays or the roles we are comfortable with, but I am really excited to do something outside the box.”

This challenge and opportunity could not have come at a better time for Paul who was part of the original team that created Canada’s first Black sitcom, Lord Have Mercy, which was nominated for two Gemini awards, including Best Comedic series.

She is an original cast member of the 2005 theatrical production, Da Kink in My Hair, which is the first Canadian play to be produced at the Princess of Wales Theatre. The story was adapted into a television show on Global TV, which surprisingly cancelled it after two seasons.

“It’s hard when something happens that you have no control over,” said Paul who played Starr in the funny show set mainly inside a Caribbean hair salon. “The decision that was taken to cancel the show had nothing to do with the effect the show had on the community or its popularity. It’s like you run a race, you win it and then later learn the rules have been changed. It was sobering for me at the time, but I am still young and it’s up to me to use my visibility and do the stories I want to tell.”

The fruit does not fall far from the tree is a saying that aptly applies to Paul, who credits her parents with pushing her to be creator rather than a consumer.

Her Dominican-born father Peter Paul is a Pan-Africanist, Black Action Defence Committee (BADC) member and very close friend of late Dominica Prime Minister Rosie Douglas, while her Kittitian-born mother, Ena, is a retired teacher.

The youngest of four children says she inherited her activism and boldness from her father and her passion for the arts from her mom.

“I am an activist when it comes to telling women stories, especially those of Black women,” said the Stephen Lewis Foundation and Plan Canada Because I am A Girl Campaign ambassador who went to Haiti earlier this year after the devastating earthquake to produce a short film with a youth media group. “Growing up, my mom took me to see plays. She would take us to Harbourfront and Dream in High Park.”

In the same year that Paul graduated from Runnymede Collegiate Institute, she attempted to show off her creative skills by choreographing the now defunct Miss Black Ontario pageant. When told that she was too young to perform that task, she took up a request to become a participant and was crowned the 1996 Queen, following accomplished Canadian actresses Tonya Lee Williams and Gloria Reuben who won the title in 1977 and 1986 respectively.

Instead of pursuing post-secondary education, Paul hired an agent and auditioned for the Stratford Shakespeare Festival where she was the youngest member of the cast and winner of the prestigious Tyrone Guthrie award. She later launched her own production company, Ngozika Productions – to showcase film and TV from an Afro-Canadian perspective.

Paul appeared in the Genie-nominated film, Short Hymn, Silent War which received the Special Jury prize at the Toronto International Film festival and she was nominated Best Actress at the British Black International Film Festival for her powerful performance as Susan in the film Banyan. She also received rave reviews for her portrayal of the young Nelson Mandela in the Toronto production of the screenplay, In the Freedom of Dream: The Story of Nelson Mandela.

She said she would like to add to her extensive and compelling body of work by playing the role of Nina Simone, the American singer/songwriter/pianist/arranger/civil rights activist who died seven years ago.

“That’s one of my dream roles,” Paul, who co-produced the CBC TV special, Tonya Lee Williams Gospel Jubilee, said. “She is such a wildcard, she’s so talented and I love her music, of course.”

Fernando Krapp Wrote Me This Letter: An Attempt at the Truth, runs until October 16 at the Bluma Appel Theatre located in the St. Lawrence Arts Centre at 27 Front St. E. Ticket prices start at $22.

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