Beloved Canadian actor, poet and playwright Walter Borden has been raising audiences to their feet for more than half a century, on stages across the country from the Neptune Theatre in Halifax to the iconic Stratford Festival and beyond.
Borden is perhaps best-known for his work with Canadian theatre legends Djanet Sears and Peter Hinton, and last performed on a Montreal stage in 2015 at the Centaur Theatre in the Djanet Sears play The Adventures of a Black Girl in Search of God.
Originally from New Glasgow, Nova Scotia – where he was feted by his hometown in a special August 2022 ceremony – Borden comes full circle this month as his autobiographical play, The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time, opens at the Neptune Theatre on September 6. Tightrope Time is one of the first plays in Black Canadian literature to explore queer identity.
A Member of the Order of Canada, Borden, now 80, first performed Tightrope Time in 1983. In its latest incarnation, he voices 12 characters in a tour-de-force solo performance that reflects his philosophy on the journey of life, and his experience as a Black-Indigenous gay man facing challenges of racism, impoverishment and homophobia.
The candid and warmhearted Borden was beginning rehearsals at the Neptune on the morning we spoke. Our interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You are one of 18 children. How old were you when you came out?
I don’t remember being anything but out. I never actually had to come out. That’s just the way it was. Never had to discuss it, it never came up. I just lived my life. I never had trouble growing up as an out person in my community. This was also a subtle indication of shadeism within the (Black) community when I grew up: I was a light-skinned kid with blond hair and blue eyes, so therefore I was granted special status and anything that might be part of my personal makeup would never be challenged.
You played the town crier in a school Christmas show in sixth grade. Did you know then that the stage was your calling?
Absolutely! I remember it clearly. I was saying my lines and watching the looks on people’s faces in the audience. What I noticed was that the looks on the white audience were the same as the looks on the Black audience. I thought how powerful it is to be able to affect people in that way. I was 11-years old and didn’t realize what was happening, I just know it in hindsight, but that was the first cornerstone.
You first performed Tightrope Time in 1983. How has your one-man play changed over the years?
It went from six to 12 characters. I was down in my hometown of New Glasgow last week, and there I realized something highly significant. So I’m adjusting my play today when we start rehearsal. I’m always working on it until the last moment.
What is it like to work with Peter Hinton on Tightrope Time?
The only director I wanted was Peter. I have known ever since we worked together at Stratford that what I needed was a gay director who has a close balance of male and female so they can shift from one moment to the next because that’s who I am and that’s what’s in the work.
Tightrope Time was slated for production by the National Arts Centre in 2022, but delayed by the anti-vax truckers protest in Ottawa. Will the NAC still stage it?
That’s the plan. My next definite commitment is to Tarragon Theatre in Toronto for 2024.
You joined the Neptune Theatre company in 1972. How does it feel to return to the Neptune 50 years later?
I’ve been thinking about it a lot these last few days. I sit inside the theatre and I can see the original theatre because when they renovated the Neptune they kept that core. It feels like coming home. I remember when the Neptune used to be the Garrick movie cinema (until 1963) and next door on the corner was the New Service Restaurant which is the first place I remember going to because it was a gay hang out without being called gay. That’s where we all hung out back then.
Was New Service where you got your first kiss?
(Laughs) I don’t think so!
In 2019 you appeared in Lilies (Les Feluettes) by Michel Marc Bouchard at Buddies in Bad Times theatre with an all-BIPOC cast.
It was really rewarding because I am Black-Indigenous. It was also thrilling because one actor in particular immediately adopted the understanding for him that I was an elder and he always viewed me as an elder within the Indigenous family. That was wonderful because that’s the first time that had happened.
Were you intimidated about starring in the Bruce LaBruce film Gerontophilia?
Not at all. Highly inquisitive, mind you.
You helped build Canada’s civil rights movement through your work with the Nova Scotia Project and the Black United Front. Were you a member of the Black Panthers in the 1960s?
No but we interacted a great deal.
In Halifax in 1968, Miriam Makeba and Stokely Carmichael stayed at your home for a week and you guys sang Miriam’s signature hit Pata Pata around your kitchen table.
Why did they stay at your home?
My cousin Rocky Jones who founded the Nova Scotia Project was at a Black writers conference in Montreal with Stokely, Miriam and a few others. In Montreal Stokely told Rocky how tired he was and Rocky told him, “Why don’t y’all just take a week off and come on to rest up in Halifax?” Because none of them had ever been here. When they arrived here at the airport, it suddenly turned into this huge media thing. We had many, many discussions around that kitchen table on policy because a lot was going on in the Panthers’ eastern and western wings at the time.
You also knew Odetta and Harry Belafonte.
I met Harry when my cousin Rocky spearheaded the development of what they called the Transitional Year Program (TYP) at Dalhousie University whereby Black and Indigenous students graduating from high school would have a transition year of learning. The TYP got in touch with Harry who was performing in town, so he came to speak to our organization and a group of kids. When we were alone we talked about his working with Sidney (Poitier) and the exploits they’d had.
And Odetta really became like a sister. I used to talk to her all the time right up until she died. She and Harry – these are people who sacrificed their careers for activism. So if anybody could guide me in any way, because I knew I had to follow this path, it was Odetta and Harry. They let me know what I could and could not expect.
How did this path you chose affect your love life?
I know that what I have to do can be a real obstacle for someone who might be a potential partner. But there is no compromising what I have to do.
How do you feel when people call you a living legend – because you are, Walter.
I try to comprehend what that word means to various people. At the end of the day I guess what it really means is that in some way or other you really live the life that you sing about in your song.
Walter Borden stars in The Last Epistle of Tightrope Time at the Neptune Theatre in Halifax from September 6 to 25. For tickets, visit neptunetheatre.com.