This year, the Toronto-based, Trinidad-born actor, playwright and comedian, Rhoma Spencer, joins the Queer and Trans Research Lab (QTRL), part of the Bonham Centre for Sexual Diversity Studies at the University of Toronto, as their 2022-23 artist-in-residence.
For Spencer, the Covid lockdown led to a significant first in her career. In May 2020, Spencer was chosen to help create Covid Confessions, an art project involving members of the public sending a short message, text, or email about their experience during lockdown, which were then sent to selected artists to incorporate into original works.
Spencer used nine of those messages as the inspiration for a one-woman monologue called Queerantine.
“It was the first time ever I wrote something that had queer content in it,” says Spencer. “It was about a lesbian talking about her desire as she explained how she dealt with isolation.”
Queerantine also led to Spencer applying to the QTRL. She had reworked the piece into a physical performance piece for Toronto LGBTQ theatre company Buddies in Bad Times, who were calling for virtual neighbourhood-specific pieces to celebrate Pride in 2020. Spencer turned her monologue into a dialogue-free piece of physical theatre set outside her home. The piece was seen by Nikoli Attai, the former QTRL Program Coordinator, who insisted she apply to be artist-in-residence.
As it turns out, Spencer had been working since 2019 on a jukebox musical based on the life of queer Caribbean icon and the “undisputed Calypso Queen of the world,” Linda McCartha Monica Sandy-Lewis, popularly known as Calypso Rose. She had even interviewed her in her home in New York.
But she was sceptical that the work was Canadian enough to impress arts funders.
“I kept asking myself, ‘Is there enough Canadian content?’ and I kept coming up with ‘no.’ I never applied anywhere, it just sat there on the shelf. But I decided I am going to use this opportunity to write this musical. I submitted my proposal to the QTRL, and, voilà, I was selected.”
The result is that Spencer’s theatre project, Queen of the Road: The Calypso Rose Musical, will be presented in a workshop in June, with Spencer having already completed the writing of Act I and one scene of Act II.
But while Spencer has only recently started writing explicitly queer works, she has long been part of the LGBTQ and theatrical communities in both Toronto and her homeland of Trinidad and Tobago.
“As a kid, there was this Best Village Competition that happened around November,” she says. “It would air live on national television, each village would put on a production, theatre, dance, music. I looooved it. My siblings would go to sleep, it would be only my mom and me.
“I loved all the local stuff, seeing myself, people who looked like me, people who sounded like me. Growing up, being an actor was not something you were encouraged to be, so I never told anyone. Then around age 15 or 16, one of my cousins took me to see the Best Village Competition live. I said: ‘this is what I want to do.’”
In 1980, Spencer joined Barataria, one of the Best Village groups, and was immediately cast for its upcoming competition.
“I was so happy,” she says. “Over the years, I was getting more and bigger parts. I worked with that company for nine years, but even while I was doing it, I hungered for more.”
Spencer auditioned for the National Drama Festival and won a part in a production of C.L.R. James’ Minty Alley.
“The best village competition was called ‘illegitimate theatre,’ the National Drama Festival was called ‘legitimate theatre.’”
But Spencer found she continued to crave the illegitimacy, a feeling that has inspired her whole career.
“The illegitimate was folk theatre, it grounded you in understanding your cultural heritage,” she says. “Legitimate theatre was all about English classics, The Importance of Being Earnest, Shakespeare. Illegitimate theatre is the impetus, the be all and end all of what I do.”
While acting, Spencer was also working a full-time job as a broadcaster and joining, discreetly, the LGBTQ community in Trinidad and Tobago.
“Being an artist at home, the stereotype was we’re all a pack of lesbians and gay men, ‘a bunch of queers,’” she says. “It made coming out easy for me, but there was no sign on my back in public. My enclave knew of my sexual orientation; the general public would just speculate. But I gave them no reason to speculate. If confronted, I would have denied it, because there was that level of shame, which is why I moved to Canada.”
In 1999, Spencer began graduate school at York University, graduating with an MFA in directing.
“I remember the first time I was asked in Toronto if I’m a gay woman, and I proudly said yes without thinking twice,” she says. “I would throw gay parties in Trinidad, which also helped fund my post-graduate studies. They became very well-known, and I became known as an early pioneer of the LGBT community of Trinidad through those parties.”
After graduation, Spencer worked at the AfriCan Theatre Ensemble, and then formed Theatre Archipelago, to perform work from the Caribbean and the diaspora. Along the way, she was also the recipient of a U.S. House of Congress Proclamation and the Borough President of NYC Proclamation for her contribution to Caribbean theatre while touring in the play Jean and Dinah.
Spencer has also become an acclaimed stand-up comedian. She began in 1991 in Trinidad and found that she enjoyed provoking laughter about serious topics. Since then, she has performed on the Caribbean comedy circuit in Washington, Boston, and New York. She was also part of the Nubian Disciples of Comedy revue at Yuk Yuk’s, including being on the 20th anniversary recording. She also recorded her own comedy album, Rhoma Spencer Caribbean Comedy 6.0, which was released in June at the Black Women in Comedy Laff Fest at New York’s Gotham Comedy Club.
Now, as artist-in-residence at the QTRL, Spencer is continuing to educate others about her culture.
“I can speak to students, faculty, and the public about my work,” she says. “I am from Trinidad and Tobago, a queer Afro-Caribbean woman, bringing my own cultural background and heritage. A lot of students have never even heard of Trinidad and Tobago, never heard of calypso. Even my research assistant, and I’m proud of how much she’s learning, her excitement.”
But Spencer says she is also learning from those she’s surrounded by.
“My presence at the QTRL is enlightening for me, it’s giving me a narrative and a language. Where I come from, queer was a derogatory term for a gay person. I didn’t want anyone calling me queer, but somehow over the years, I have learned to embrace it. I’m immersing myself more and taking hold of the language around diversity in this century.”