When The Coast reaches Eastern Front Theatre’s executive director Kat McCormack by phone, it takes a minute for the call to settle. McCormack plugs in headphones, but the background noise is deliciously inescapable. Rooms away from where McCormack is sequestered, the cast, crew, director and live band of EFT and Charles Taylor Theatre & Media Arts Association’s upcoming musical Love, Peace and Hairgrease are working through a key number, hitting the high notes in the countdown to opening night. “I dunno if you can hear them but they are belting,” McCormack says with an audible reverence mixed with laughter. “It’s a big old theatre, right? And a big old theatre requires big ol’ voices—and that’s exactly what this show is.”
Written, composed and directed by East Preston’s Tara Taylor (who is also the artistic director of Charles Taylor Theatre & Media Arts Association), Love, Peace and Hairgrease follows the life story of a Black woman from childhood onwards, charting her journey towards loving herself and her hair as she inherits her grandmother’s beauty salon. Mixing a powerful personal-political undertone with landmark representation and swing-for-the-rafters musical numbers, the play is showing at Alderney Landing Theatre from Oct. 21-30 (see showtimes and ticket details—including ample pay-what-you-can options—on EFT’s website).
“I'm in the room only because I want to be there. I'm so excited. Like, the artistic director doesn't actually have to be in the room. This is Tara’s show,” McCormack says. “But she's been kind enough to have me in the space with her. So it's been really, really cool just to watch this thing evolve.” (The sheer scale of the production is something McCormack returns to a few times in their chat with The Coast, explaining a live band isn’t always part of the typical play—and that staging a musical means a cast that often runs triple the size of the average play.)
It’s Taylor’s second big-deal play this year, following this summer’s original musical Hood Habits, which showed at the Light House Arts Centre—an almost double-bill anointing of the theatre vet as Halifax’s answer to both Lorraine Hansberry and Lin-Manuel Miranda: The type of show-creator who doesn’t just tell stories of underrepresented communities (though that is a core tenant of Taylor’s work), but rather invites audiences into these communities’ worlds.
“It's long overdue for putting these stories on: It's not that I've actually been afraid to put them on stage, but I just wanted to have the right people, the right timing, the right team, the right actors and the right environment,” Taylor tells The Coast in a phone interview from late August, referencing her diverse cast that includes several Black actors who’ll be making their stage debut (thanks to the space she’s made). “All that's happening with Black folk nowadays: That's probably why the timing is right and why the cast is right. Because they themselves and their careers are now understanding that they can have a career in this and it’s not just people that don't look like them.”
(Another sign that Taylor’s sense of time is right? Charles Taylor Theatre & Media Arts Association became a part of Theatre Nova Scotia this year, seeing her efforts move from grassroots, community theatre to the larger stage she’s long been ready for. It’s now one of two Black-woman-owned professional theatre companies in the province.)
Love, Peace and Hairgrease “celebrates Black hair, Black heritage, and what that means to the main characters in the play,” Taylor adds. “The main character: Who people might think that she is, as in look like, will not be that. It tells me what the general population thinks that she may look like, because of who auditioned for it. And the person who got the role auditioned for another cast—but has the talent to be the lead role. And so I thought this person is who the history and the development of this character represents wholeheartedly. So, it's just that non-traditional sense of who should be on stage—and what they should look like and who they should be. I love breaking those molds.”
Love, Peace and Hairgrease also has a meta feeling braided in: Taylor, a self-described “creative entrepreneur” isn’t just a writer-director-composer or artistic director (though that’s already an overflowing resume): She also co-owns one of Halifax’s few salons aimed at caring for Black hair (and the first in the city aimed at braiding), Gottingen Street’s The Braiding Lounge. (The fact her shop is mere meters from where legendary Viola Desmond’s salon once stood seems to underscore the point.)
The woven-with-life feeling of Love, Peace and Hairgrease (which, to be clear, is a fully fictional story) is only amplified by the deep sense of community running through both play and playwright. It’s a sentiment that’s impossible not to feel when talking with Taylor directly: She mentions how she’s often approached by new talent. “I will audition on the spot,” Taylor says with a laugh. “Even the grocery store or at a function, and we’re talking about the industry and they’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I always wanted to be an actor.’ I’ll be like, ‘Oh, sing for me right now! What do you got?’”
“Tara, I think, is authentic, more than anything. And we laughed when we met each other because I was like, ‘But I know everyone—how come I don't know you?’ And Tara truly knows everyone,” McCormack tells me as a muffled solo fills the background and screaming applause thunders. “She's such a community maker and a community player. And just the way she works… She's all about building people up.”