Two people hold a black and white photo while examining it

Uncovering Hidden Histories: Creative in Residence, Uju Umenyi

August 30, 2022

Creative in Residence, Uju Umenyi, and the story of Samuel Stout

Uju Umenyi loves history. In collaboration with Theatre on the Ridge, she is creating a play about Samuel Stout, Port Perry’s first Black resident. Umenyi’s staged reading will be presented during the 2022 Ontario Culture Days Festival, alongside a conversation with Dr. Cheryl Thompson of the Ontario Black History Society.

Umenyi began researching in earnest in November of 2021. She says the process has been a hybrid of research and writing: after the first phase of research, she started writing, would get to a point where something was missing and return to the research. There wasn’t much information available about Stout, so she worked closely with local historians and members of the Ontario Black History Society. She has had to fill in the gaps on her own, fictionalizing some aspects. She hopes to honour the life he lived as much as she can with the information she was able to find.

Uju Umenyi smiling
Uju Umenyi (playwright).

The play is set in the mid-19th century, a few years after Stout arrived in Port Perry. To situate the play in the appropriate time, she pieced together the lives of the people he would have interacted with, navigating through hypothetical conversations. Umenyi dove into what Port Perry was like in the 1850s and 1860s. What was happening in the town then? And why did Stout leave his home and come to Port Perry? He had come up from New Jersey, there were obvious reasons why a Black man would leave the US in the mid-19th century. But Stout arrived in Port Perry in his 40s or 50s – why did he make this decision well into his mid-life?

A group of 16 elderly people lined up for a photo
Samuel Stout (back row, far right) in a group photo, which reads “An Octogenarian Party, Port Perry, Aug 6, ’00.”

Stout married, had children and remained in Port Perry for the rest of his life. He was over 100 when he died. In her research she found he made several stops before landing in Port Perry. Umenyi says moving to a town now as a Black person and being the only one would be a jarring, isolating experience and imagines it would have been much more so in Stout’s time. Why was this the place that prompted him to stay, existing in a degree of isolation? She goes on to say it has been a learning process to get herself out of a space where she’s relying on tropes about Black people during that time. It’s easy to lean on those tropes, so she keeps reminding herself that humans are complex.

One of her early discussions with Black historian Dr. Cheryl Thompson explored why Stout stayed. Thompson talked about the possibility that he wasn’t a rebel and was the person who just laid down and let things happen and was silent during it. Conversations like this helped Umenyi explore complexity of character. She says if he did make those choices, it doesn’t make him any less wonderful or heroic because he was a product of his environment, as we all are. She hopes to build his character in all its dimensions.

Kate Johnston (dramaturg)
From L to R: Beverley Brown (Port Perry resident and TOTR patron), Dr. Amy Barron (TOTR Board, Scugog Historical Society, museum studies Sir Sanford Fleming College), Paul Arculus (Port Perry historian and former President, Scugog Historical Society), Isabelle Arculus (Port Perry resident and TOTR patron).
Uju Umenyi (playwrite) and Audra Grey (actor)
Umenyi and her script

Because Port Perry is a small community and Umenyi is writing about people whose families are still there, there has been a lot of positive investment in the project. Receiving community support has been encouraging. Many local actors who are from Port Perry or live there have expressed interest in performing in the play.

When people see the play in the fall, Umenyi would like them to pause and think. Hopefully, for some it’s examining somebody from a different perspective. For those who are from Port Perry, she wants to honor their stories and their history, so they can walk away with a different or expanded understanding of where they are from.

She’s sure that across Canada there are lots of “firsts”. People who lived interesting and challenging lives whose histories are not known, histories we are still unpacking. She says it’s been a dream to do the research for this project, and that this Canadian history too.

Ontario Culture Days runs an annual Creatives in Residence program. Part of the work of the Creatives is presented during public events for our festival of free arts and culture programming across Ontario.

Meet this year’s cohort and register to attend the staged reading & premiere of The Story of Samuel Stout.