In a world rapidly acquainted with the concept of essential work, the new play by Black Theatre Workshop “Diggers” is an exploration of what it means to undertake the mundane tasks that most take for granted. Premiering February 1st and running until the 17th at the Segal Centre for Performing Arts’ Studio Theatre, this production is a collaborative effort between the Black Theatre Workshop and Prairie Theatre Exchange, promising a rich, introspective look into the lives of those who toil behind the scenes.
The inception of “Diggers” was anything but ordinary. It was a photograph entered into a competition that caught Donna- Michelle St. Bernard’s eye – the image of grave diggers, marked by their expressive faces and casual attire, working in the solemnity of their profession. This visual sparked a curiosity in St. Bernard, leading her to discover the layers of tradition and familial bonds within this line of work. “Their faces, their casual clothes, then later I found other things about them that I found interesting. There seemed to be gravedigging lineages. Or father and son working together digging graves. That was interesting to me,” St. Bernard shared with CONTACT.
Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, known by her stage name Belladonna the Blest, is not just a playwright; she is an artistic director, an emcee, and an advocate for the arts. The centerpiece of St. Bernard’s work is the ongoing “54ology” project, a series of plays exploring identity, gender, race, and social justice through the lens of Black women. Plays like “Gas Girls,” a Dora Mavor Moore Award winner for Outstanding New Play, and “A Man A Fish,” nominated for the Governor General’s Award, showcase her raw talent and unflinching exploration of complex themes. St. Bernard’s reach extends beyond her signature project. She has penned commissioned works like “Reaching for Starlight” for young audiences, opera libretti like “Oubliette,” and edited anthologies like “Indian Act: Residential School Plays,” amplifying marginalized voices.
Diggers is a part of the 54ology and she boldly tackles the concept of essential work as told through grave diggers. As she started working on the play, the global pandemic unfolded. Shutting many in but pushing those deemed as essential out. The society was forced to reckon with the concept of essential work and the individuals who perform it. This reflection deeply influenced St. Bernard’s perspective and became a central theme in “Diggers.” “The language of essential, who is and who isn’t, and how people are being treated in the world. We started seeing how important custodians and nurses were. The people who did the work that some of us felt that we couldn’t do but needed someone to do,” she notes.
“Diggers” follows Abdul, Solomon, and the newcomer Bai as they navigate the trials and tribulations of their profession against the backdrop of an ailing town. As the town’s illness worsens, these three gravediggers find themselves increasingly isolated, their workload mounting even as the community’s support wanes.
Yet, despite the grim circumstances, “Diggers” is imbued with moments of song, laughter, tears, and an undeniable celebration of humanity. It’s a tribute to the essential workers, those often overlooked in society’s hierarchy of labor, who carry on with dignity and strength.
The narrative of “Diggers” challenges audiences to reconsider the value and importance of all forms of work, especially those that take place out of sight. It’s a powerful reminder of the collective reliance on individuals like Abdul, Solomon, and Bai, who, in the face of adversity, uphold the community’s continuity and well-being.
Diggers is a co-production with CKUT and will be ushering Black History Month on 1st of February at the Segal Centre.
For more information https://blacktheatreworkshop.ca/diggers/