The current production at the Victoria Playhouse tells the story of a great Canadian you may never heard of.
Born in 1911 to William White, a descendant of Virginia slaves, and Izie Dora White, whose family tree contained United Empire Loyalist, Portia White was the third of 13 children loved by the Truro, and later Halifax, Nova Scotia family.
Portia is also the first Black Canadian concert singer to draw international acclaim and the first Canadian to perform at New York’s Town Hall in 1944.
At age 6, Portia’s talent was recognized when she began singing in the choir at her Pastor father’s church. Within two years, Portia was walking 10 miles a week for music lessons. Portia kept singing while training as a teacher at Dalhousie University, and after finishing school, she taught to help fund her music lessons. Eventually, she started lessons at the Halifax Conservatory of Music and soon earned a scholarship to study with renowned teacher Ernesto Vinci.
Portia’s singing career continued to flourish and in 1964, Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip applauded her performance at Charlottetown’s Confederation Centre of the Arts. In 1995– 27 years after her death– Portia was named a “person of national historic significance” by Canada’s Governor General.
Now, the story of Portia is on display at the Victoria Playhouse in its production of Portia written by Nova Scotian author Lance Woolaver. The Lambton Shield sat down with Amber Tomiln, who fills Portia’s shoes, and Michelle White, who plays the role of Izie White, to learn more about the performance.
“This is my favourite role of my entire career,” said White, who has performed in productions of Show Boat, The Lion King, and Mary Poppins over her decades long musical theatre career.
Tomlin, who normally takes on singing roles, said this is her time acting with lines instead of only music on the script.
“This show is really special,” said Tomlin. “We’ve done other things and they’ve been great things…there’s just something about this show that brings something beautiful to the audience and to the actors. It’s just beautifully written and beautifully arranged. We love it more and more everyday.”
The play deals with themes such as living the best life you can during your short time on earth and persevering despite societal challenges.
“There’s no words to describe what the feeling is like to play [Portia]. I’m elated. I’m proud,” said Tomlin.
Tomlin said filling Portia’s shoes has been challenging, but not in a negative way.
“It’s made me become a more rounded performer,” said Tomlin. “She has such a legacy and such a poise that studying that made me want to bring it to life.”
Besides memorizing lines and learning music, both performers said preparing for Portia involved researching the singer and her family.
“When I got the script, it was the first time I ever heard of Portia White,” said Tomlin. “It’s a story that needs to be told.”
White was familiar with Portia’s story and occasionally gets asked if she is related to the late Contralto. While there is no relation between Portia White and Michelle White, researching for her role as Izie led White to discover her former vocal teacher learned from Ernesto Vinci after the second world war.
“There’s so many things that Ernesto says to Portia [in the performance] that I heard from my voice teacher’s mouth,” White said, adding she plans to meet with the former teacher to talk about Mr. Vinci.
Both actors said audience members leave the show with questions about the life and times of Portia. After each performance, the audience has a chance to meet with the performers and White said more than half of the people she speaks with say they want to learn more about Portia.
“Her being Canadian is so special. It’s our history. We need to know about her as Canadians,” said Tomlin. “Portia is this hidden gem people need to know about.”
Working at the VPP has been a unique experience for both actors who said Playhouse staff offer a “personal touch” for everyone involved with the performance.
White said co-artistic directors David Hogan and David Rogers take time to talk with all actors to ensure each individual can work the aspects of the show they need to practice to bring their best performance when the curtain rises.
“The personal touch that’s here, I have not seen that,” said White.
“This is the best company I have ever worked with.”
“I have felt so loved,” said Tomlin.
Portia runs at the VPP until August 27. Shows are at 2 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday with an evening performance at 8 p.m. on Fridays. Regular tickets cost $41, seniors pay $40, and those 18 and under are admitted for $27.