Kim Roberts: There needs to be a safe space to nurture and create Black art - Nia Centre for the Arts

Kim Roberts: There needs to be a safe space to nurture and create Black art

By Nia Centre, p
Posted on February 22, 2021

Kim Roberts is an internationally renowned actress with over 200 film, television and theatre credits to her name. A veteran in the industry, she is the first Black woman to have a speaking role in a nationally televised commercial, you may recognize her from memorable roles in The Handmaid’s Tale, Schitt's Creek, The Cheetah Girls and the Saw series. She was the co-founder of Canada’s most prominent Black theatre company, Obsidian Theater. 

“I was born and raised in Toronto. I've lived my whole life here. It’s not till the last quarter of my life that I was able to turn on a radio and hear music that reflected artists that look like me. I’m still looking for Canadian shows that reflect people who look like me in great numbers,” says Kim. 

A fellow resident in our neighbourhood of Oakwood Village, Kim continues to inspire and empower emerging actors of colour through mentorship, leadership and breaking barriers in the world of filmmaking. 

For Black History Month, we’re honouring Kim whose everyday actions, contributions and have paved a way for young Black aspiring actors to thrive. We sat down with Kim to learn more about how she went to school to become a lawyer then switched to acting, and why Black artists need a space to grow in Toronto. Read our Q&A below!

Q: What inspired you to go into acting?

It was somehow always in my blood. My mother talked about how they used to put on plays as children in Dominica to entertain each other. She encouraged that bone in me at an early age. Throughout my childhood my cousins and I would perform fully rehearsed plays to theatre audiences in the basements of our homes. I took drama when it was offered in school and joined every drama club that I had the chance to. 

Q: How did you get your start in the arts?

I spent two years at Western University majoring in Poli-Sci with plans to become a lawyer. But didn’t go to class much, and I was understandably in need of credits. I had taken a summer course at York University that was taught by the chair of the theatre department who offered me a spot going into second year. At first, I had the audacity to turn him down because I had a great apartment back at Western and a really good schedule – no classes before 10 or after 3 and Fridays off.  But eventually, I transferred to York, to start over in the first year Theatre Department. 

In that year I met Diane Roberts, who became the stage manager for The Company of Sirens. She suggested that I come audition for a play being directed by ahdri zhina mandiela. I showed up for the auditions not knowing that they had been canceled. Ahdri‘s daughter, Jajube Mandiela, who played Chantay Black on Degrassi, took a liking to me And as we sat around chatting, Ahdri invited me to do my piece. I’ll never forget, my monologue of choice back then was the “lady in red” from ntozake shange’s, “for coloured girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf...”.  After I performed the monologue Ahdri asked if I could start right away.

Q: What led you to co-found Obsidian Theatre, Canada’s most prominent Black theatre company?  

When Obsidian was formed The Black presence on the Canadian theatre scene was very minimal. It was important to us to change that, with important works that spoke to the great canon of artistic talent within our community. We also thought it important to serve as an incubator for artists who would later spread out onto the global scene. 

The very first meeting took place in my home in Oakwood-Vaughan. I received a call from actor/director Alison Sealy-Smith saying that she wanted to start a Black theatre company. Initially we were 12: Awaoveiyi Agie, Ardon Bess, David Collins, Roy Lewis, Yanna McIntosh, Diane Roberts, Sandi Ross, Djanet Sears, SatorI Shakoor, Tricia Williams, Alison and myself.  That first meeting turned into many months of meetings where we discussed our vision for the company, our mandate, and what we wished to achieve on the landscape of Canadian theatre.

Q: What was the most exciting production you were a part of, and why?

I shot a movie at the largest brothel in Europe. That was an experience in and of itself. Also early on in my career when I was working with The Company of Sirens, we landed a contract with the ministry of the Attorney General that had us producing material for a play that would tour the province addressing gender and racial inequity in the workplace. I got to interview and tour the province with judges, justices of the peace, and Crown Attorneys. It was a fascinating look into the mindset of the people running our judicial systems.

My early days in Toronto theatre were also a very exciting time. Working with artists like ahdri zhina mandiela and Djanet Sears on projects like b current’s “Diaspora Dub”. Also working with Sharon Lewis and Maxine Bailey on the 1994 all Black female production of “Sistahs”. These were exciting times.

Q: Why is it important for young Black actors to have a safe space to create and foster their creative talents?

There is a dearth of art that reflects our place in society and who we are as a community and a people. A show that I’m working on right now for CBC called “Diggstown” is the first Canadian drama with a Black female lead (Vinessa Antoine).  Only 28 years ago I was the first Black woman to speak in a Canadian commercial. That’s just not good enough. The gatekeepers have limited our entry to the main stage, that’s why it’s important for us to have our own doors. And our own spaces.

Q: In Canada, the contributions of Black artists often go unnoticed. Why is it important to celebrate Black artists in our community?

The simple answer is because we exist and we have been achieving in and contributing to the arts in beautiful and profound ways for many decades in this country. The celebration of our achievements is long overdue. As an actor who has been in the industry for many years and achieved many firsts, I can tell you firsthand that it’s important to feel validated by the community you serve. Be that the artistic community, the Black community or the worldwide community—Black achievements have gone under-acknowledged for too long. 

I have more credits than any other female actor I know – most male actors too. I can’t help but feel that if I was a white woman this would’ve been celebrated on the Canadian landscape. When you see someone who looks like you doing something you didn’t know was a possibility for you, the whole world opens up.

Q: Is there anything else you'd want us to plug-in?

To be an artist is to make one of the most courageous choices you’ll ever make in your lifetime. To be an artist is to express something inside you that just has to come out in order for you to breathe properly. Honour yourself. Honour your art. Do what you must to take care of both. The world needs more artists.

You can follow Kim on Instagram, Twitter and Facebook. Make sure you check out her work, and how she’s making history. 

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