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“Pioneer” and “inspiration” Denis Simpson dies suddenly

"He didn't speak big words, he did big deeds": David C Jones

Pioneer. Inspiration. Mentor. The personification of compassion and humility.

This is how many in the queer and arts communities are universally remembering award-winning artist, television show host and activist Denis Simpson, who died suddenly after suffering a brain hemorrhage on Oct 22 in Toronto.

“Simpson was one of the first black faces on Canadian television with the Polka Dot Door,” playwright Berend McKenzie says.

“That was groundbreaking in itself, but then he had a whole body of work that was amazing,” McKenzie points out.

“He was one of the founding members of The Nylons, his own show, Denis Anyone? which he won a Jessie Award for; then there was Ain’t Misbehavin’ — people just always wanted to work with Denis Simpson.

“They knew that with Denis, you would get no drama; you would probably have a lot of laughs,” McKenzie adds.

“He became my best friend over the last few months, working together on nggrfg,” says McKenzie, his voice thick with grief. “The show would not have been the show that it is without Denis Simpson.

“He was gentle, he was quietly firm, he was never negative.

“We laughed a lot together; we were like bosom buddies — I called him Denny Lou and he called me Brenda Lee,” McKenzie adds, laughing.

“Simpson’s passing is a great loss for Vancouver, Toronto and Canadian theatre as a whole,” McKenzie says.
“He was a legend, but he didn’t ever use his legendary status to his benefit,” McKenzie notes. “He was almost embarrassed by it.

“He was very humble, he was very gracious to everybody that he met, and he almost went out of his way to make people comfortable.”

Simpson met challenges head-on, “just picked himself up, dusted himself off and he’d go back up onstage,” McKenzie says.

“I saw him on Polka Dot Door, [and] I didn’t know he was queer,” recalls Vancouver West-End MLA Spencer Chandra Herbert.

“But to see him on national television, it was the fact that Canada was not just a white [country], there were all sorts of people in Canada” — something that “stuck with me,” Chandra Herbert adds.

“He really showed that if you had something to say, and if you had a voice — you didn’t have to be a professional, though he certainly was — no matter who you were, your words were important.”

From the beginning, says Chandra Herbert, Simpson’s work in the theatre world focused on celebrating Canada’s diversity, encouraging young performers “to get involved, to get their stories out.”

Screaming Weenies’ Se├ín Cummings echoes Chandra Herbert’s sentiments.

“Denis was a huge supporter of new young artists,” Cummings says. “He was known for being an encouraging voice.

“He was a role model for queer artists, as well as for African Canadian artists, and an overall inspiration, really.”

Cummings clearly remembers his last encounter with Simpson as being a frantic one. Cummings was on the fly to an audition.

“He told me to remain true to myself and to have a good time because at the end of the day, the only person I really have to live with is myself,” Cummings remembers.

“It made my week. I always felt good after interacting with Denis. And I didn’t know him that well.”

Simpson was always “so caring and interested in how everybody was doing,” agrees Chandra Herbert, who remembers Simpson babysitting him and his brother when they were little.

“For me, [he was] the first person I ever met who was living with another man, sleeping in the same bed, and I couldn’t figure out what was going on,” he recalls with a laugh.

“Simpson was also a tireless fundraiser, especially for HIV/AIDS charities. He was insistent on getting the arts world involved because so many in the community were dying,” Chandra Herbert says.

“That was the kind of guy he was: he just gave,” Vancouver comedian David C Jones agrees.

“If you needed him to sing, to loan his name to something, if he could he would be there — without hesitation, so giving and so loving.”

Jones recalls directing Simpson in the musical Ruthless, in which he had to play a white woman. “And he didn’t play her white,” Jones says, laughing.

Simpson “didn’t speak big words; he did big deeds,” Jones summarizes.

“He was one of those persons who, when you bumped into him on the street, you suddenly became his whole world at that moment,” Jones adds.

“I think he is one of the most genuine souls, and I am so sad that he has passed.”

Funeral arrangements will be announced at a later date. Check xtra.ca for updates.