Actor brings former slave Henson's saga to the stage

October 21, 2019
Peter Hendra

Cassel Miles plays the title character, and 30 others, in the one-actor play Josiah Henson: From Slave to Saviour.

If you ask Canadians who Josiah Henson was, you’re likely to get a shoulder shrug more often than not. Sixteen years ago, actor Cassel Miles would have done the same. He didn’t know who Henson was until he happened upon a documentary about Henson on television. “I’d never heard the name,” explained Miles, the star of the new one-actor play Josiah Henson: From Slave to Saviour, which premieres Wednesday evening at the Grand Theatre. “They mentioned the words Uncle Tom, which I had heard but I didn’t know what that was, so I started to watch. As I watched and learned about this man’s life, I was like, ‘Whoa. Who is he? How come I’ve never heard of this man in all my years of Canadian history?’” Miles was captivated by Henson’s story: how he had been enslaved yet managed to not just liberate himself, but also others, by escaping to Canada; how Henson established the British American Institute in Dresden, Ont., to educate slaves who made it north of the 49th parallel as well as Indigenous Peoples and others; how he wrote his 1849 biography (on which this play is based) to raise money to buy his brother’s freedom. “He came to freedom, and that’s when, for me, the story really took off,” Miles explained. “What he did here was what makes him a hero to me.” Miles was not only intrigued by Henson, he was inspired by him and aspired to be more like him. “How do I do that? Because he’s a man of integrity, a man of good character, forthright, honest, upright, a leader, he shouldered responsibility. He was doing everything I wasn’t doing. So how do I become like that?” Miles asked himself.

 What stood out to Miles was his hero’s resilience. “He just never took no for an answer. He went through hell, basically, slavery. Beaten down, beaten down, beaten down,” he said. “And every time he gets up stronger and more determined.” Determined to learn more, he went about reading or watching anything about Henson he could find, and wound up with a stack of research material. He figured that if he didn’t know who Henson was, then there were probably a lot of other Canadians who didn’t know his story either. He wanted to change that. “How can I share the story? I can’t write. I tried it, but no, no, no,” Miles laughed. “I can act but I can’t write.” So, after a few unsuccessful starts, Miles connected with local playwright Charles Robertson, one of the creative forces behind Bottle Tree Productions. Robertson suggested doing Henson’s story as a one-actor play rather than a full production, with Miles playing 31 different characters. “When I write shows, I usually write it to the talent of the actors,” Robertson said. “One thing is Cassel moves so well. He’s a really good dancer … so one of the things I get to play with him is going from one character to another is pretty amazing. “I say to him there are no small parts, only small actors,” Robertson laughed, “but he’s playing all of the parts.” The story covers Henson’s life from four to 40 years old. “Everything he goes through with injuries and heartbreak and heartache, and triumphs and despair. Everything,” Miles said. “We go through this terrain of emotion.”

 It was because of Miles’ history as a professional dancer that Robertson thought he could handle the physicality needed to be a man being whipped and the man doing it. “He can do so much with movement,” Robertson marvelled, calling Miles a “tremendous actor.” Miles, however, didn’t have that self-confidence at the start, so it was up to Robertson to instil it. “He’s going to make me a better actor because he’s pushing me to do things I’ve never done before,” said Miles, who, when he was an usher in Toronto, used to admire Rod Beattie’s one-actor performance in Wingfield on Ice, part of Dan Needles’ Wingfield series. “They’re there, but I’ve never had to do them.” Josiah Henson: From Slave to Saviour isn’t just a play you watch, both insist, but one you feel as well. “There’s so much power coming through the words,” Miles believes. “The words are coming through me out to you, and that powers what people feel. And that’s the experience that empowers them, that feeling. And you get a sense of the power of this man, the greatness of him. We should all have some strength like that, that inner strength.”

 While Wednesday’s performance on the Grand Theatre stage — they will perform it in a lit area that measures 12 feet by 12 feet onstage. That will be as much space as they will need when they, hopefully, take their show on the road. “It’s never done,” Miles said with a smile. “The show’s not frozen and done. We’re not even finished properly crafting the script yet. The presentation on the 23rd is very important to kick-start the next phase of it, the touring phase.” And Miles is happy to being taking another step in his 15-year mission to bring Henson’s overlooked story to the stage. “I couldn’t be more excited,” he said, “to be performing it on the Grand stage.”