3 min

Poet radical

The adventures of Walter Borden

Credit: R Kelly Clipperton

As writer, activist, classical and contemporary actor, Walter Borden is a renaissance man who defies strict categorization. It’s fitting, then, that he’s poised to co-star in the Mirvish’s remount of The Adventures Of A Black Girl In Search of God, Djanet Sear’s sweeping multi-disciplinary saga – complete with a 22-member cast, 13 of which comprise a chorus.

Borden says Sears’ play is, “the most significant piece of African-Canadian theatre that we have.” He plays Abendigo, an activist patriarch in the community of Negro Creek and father to the show’s main character Rainey Crawford (Karen Robinson). Borden’s character defies the city government’s misdirected attempt to change the town’s name, thereby whitening the settlement and wiping out yet another piece of black Ontarian history.

As he prepares to reprise the role he originated in last year’s universally praised Nightwood/ Obsidian Theatre co-production, he sees yet another opportunity to immerse himself in a character, to fit himself into, what he calls, “an empty suit of skin… pull it up over and zip it up.”

He first met Sears while performing in Neptune Theatre’s production of her award-winning play Harlem Duet in Saskatoon. She said that she had him in mind when she was writing the part of Abendigo. Borden feels that Sears, “has the ability during a short period of time to hone in on the characteristics that form your foundation.” So by the time he began to learn the role, he felt that he would be very much like the character. A recent cast trip to Negro Creek, near Owen Sound, re-affirmed his belief in the character. He says that Abendigo came alive for him there, sitting in the environment that Sears has transplanted so beautifully to the stage.

Borden’s own life reflects Abendigo’s activism. As part of the Black Panthers in the 1960s, he never thought of himself as simply a black activist or a gay activist. Both roles were integral to his liberationist agenda. “If someone had a problem with my gayness, it was, ‘Good-bye. I don’t have time,'” says Borden. One of 18 children, he is still connected to his 13 surviving siblings, some straight, some gay.

Borden has played so many roles – from Shakespeare to Pinter – it is difficult to chronicle them all in one sitting. His career began in grade six in New Glasgow, Nova Scotia where he played the town crier in the school Christmas show. He knew then that he had power over an audience. He once stated: “In that performance I noticed that people were listening to me as someone else. I had them in the palm of my hand. I realized that was a very powerful position. I knew I wanted to use that power.”

After graduating from teacher’s college, acting in community theatre and teaching junior high, he left Nova Scotia for two years to study at New York’s Circle In The Square. When Borden’s US status was changed, making him eligible for the draft, he returned to Canada and the Vancouver Playhouse where he played a supporting role in Othello.

More recently, he played a detective opposite Parker Posey in Thom Fitzgerald’s film The Event. This past summer he appeared at Stratford in Agamemnon, The Flies, Elektra and The Swan. And he is slated to play King Lear – a role he’s always wanted – during the 2004/05 season at Neptune.

In the early 1980s Borden wrote and performed in Tightrope Time: Ain’t Nuthin’ More Than Some Itty Bitty Madness Between Twilight And Dawn. “Importantly, Borden presents male, female, cross- gendered, and – irrepressibly – queer voices,” writes George Elliot Clarke on the significance of Tightrope Time. “In making this gesture, Borden is radically avant-garde, for – in African-Canadian literature – male homosexuality receives, rarely, any consummate dramatic and lyrical annunciation.”

The one-man show has 12 characters, including the drag queen Ethiopia and Adie, a hooker, characters that appeared only in later productions. He remembers taking a walk one day in an attempt to bring a new character to life. Feeling uninspired, he sat down by the public gardens and then, suddenly, after an acquaintance walked by and said hello, Ethiopia started to speak to him. She spoke prophetically of her position as a drag queen in a way that summarizes the role of the actor: “An image/ passing as a human being…. An image/pretending to be me/ confuses fact and fiction.”

In Tightrope Time we see Borden as the astute poet/radical intent upon revealing some of society’s most provocative open secrets. He hopes one day to direct another production with a new actor playing the many roles.

Borden always felt an affinity to the strong cultural voices that surrounded him. By the time he made it to New York he was told by the principal of his acting school that his experience on stage in Nova Scotian community theatre gave him more practical knowledge of the theatre than any of the other students, including actor Paul Rudd. Truly in touch with the many artistic and political moments that fill a single lifetime, Walter Borden is an iconic Canadian chameleon who appears to have always remained true to himself.


$35-$60. Wed, Nov 5-Mar 21.

Harbourfront Theatre Centre.

231 Queens Quay W.

(416) 872-1212.