Entertainment Local

Victoria Playhouse production tells the story of concert singer

By Melissa Schilz, Postmedia Network

Amber Tomlin plays Portia White in the VPP’s next big production ‘Portia’, the story of Canada’s first black female concert singer. Handout/Postmedia Network

Amber Tomlin plays Portia White in the VPP’s next big production ‘Portia’, the story of Canada’s first black female concert singer. Handout/Postmedia Network

The Victoria Playhouse is debuting its next Canadian-themed feature entitled ‘Portia’ next week; the production dives into the life and times of Canada’s first black female concert singer, Portia White.

Classically trained singer Amber Tomlin from Windsor will be taking on the lead role of Portia in her first production with the Victoria Playhouse. She said the role has led her to learn more about an important Canadian figure she wasn’t too familiar with.

“We’re just falling in love with her story,” Tomlin said. “It’s so important that it’s being done because I think there are people who just don’t know who she is and they need to – it’s Canadian history.”

Growing up next to the U.S. border, Tomlin said Canadian history can often be overshadowed by the history of the United States. But that’s why she’s so glad the story is being told, and she said she wants as many people as possible to hear it.

“When we did our first read through with music, something just came alive in the show,” she said. “I hope audiences will leave empowered and uplifted… it’s a story of courage and it tells us that it’s ok to go for your dreams.”

Tomlin said the beautiful thing about the play is that it’s telling her story through art, which helps to draw in audiences in a unique way. Portia was one of 13 siblings, all of who found some form of success, but it was Portia who found international fame.

“People are going to walk away knowing there was an actual Portia White,” she said. “It’s really a story worth telling.”

Artistic director David Hogan said he first came across the Lance Woolaver play about 11 years ago. After reading it, he knew right away it was something he would produce on stage one day.

The story of Portia pulls together themes of music, spirit, family and love. She overcame significant barriers during her time and rose to fame in the 1940s despite them. The show will feature music arranged by Mark Payne, and while the show will celebrate high notes, Hogan said there will be moments where they have to delve into a dark past to do the story justice, including discussions of slavery.

“The songs are very powerful... it’s just glorious,” he said.

Hogan said in those days, it was difficult enough for women to achieve what Portia did, and as a black woman, it was unheard of. But with a voice that was considered to be a gift from Heaven, she dominated and became an internationally acclaimed singer and an admirable Canadian. She was even named a person of national historic significance by the government of Canada in 1995, nearly three decades after her death.

“She never even thought about, she just did what she did,” he said. “This instrument – her voice – moved hundreds of thousands of people, and they wanted to hear her sing… she was fearless.”

Hogan said her story can often be overlooked because her career was cut rather short – she died of cancer in 1968, but her music lives on, and Hogan said they want to share the beauty of her short but impactful life.

“It wasn’t about her… it was about the generations of women and people of colour before her,” Hogan said. “She’s a real heroine.”



When: Aug. 15-27

Where: Victoria Playhouse Petrolia Tickets can be purchased at www.thevpp.ca or by calling the box office 1-800-717-7694