When the image of Viola Desmond appeared on the $10 bill in 2018, many Canadians got out their computers and history books to find out who she was.
Krystle Dos Santos was no different.
And, over the course of her research, the Vancouver-based entertainer and educator became fascinated with the story about the successful Black entrepreneur who stood up against injustice in Nova Scotia in 1946 and changed civil rights in Canada.
This week, Dos Santos will be in Coquitlam to perform a musical tribute in honour of Desmond that she co-wrote with director Tracey Power.
Titled Hey, Viola!, it features Dos Santos as Desmond and is accompanied on stage by musicians Chris Davis, Steven Charles and Jen Lewin.
In an interview with the Tri-City News, Dos Santos said the jazz-style cabaret show weaves the tale of Desmond's childhood, her business in the beauty industry and her brave actions following a visit to a movie theatre in New Glasgow, NS, where she refused to sit in the segregated section.
Throughout, they play songs from the 1930s to '60s — tunes that were popular when Desmond was a child and young woman "and likely she would have heard on the radio," Dos Santos said.
Among the 17 songs, of which nine are in the public domain, are:
- "Dream A Little Dream of Me"
- "On the Sunny Side of the Street"
- "A Change is Gonna Come"
Dos Santos and Power picked the songs after reading Desmond's sister's biography, which named popular musical acts during the era.
Desmond "would have known what these songs really meant," she said, referring to political anthems sprouting up during the U.S. civil rights movement.
"They speak to the experience."
Dos Santos said each of the songs “fits in like a puzzle piece” into the seven narratives that unfold during the performance.
A two-time Western Canadian Music Award winner, Dos Santos, who has Guyanese roots, grew up in Edmonton and studied at the Canadian College of Performing Arts (she also has a bachelor's degree in science from the University of Alberta).
Dos Santos is best known for her recordings, as well as her television and stage acting skills: She starred in the Arts Club Theatre's Dreamgirls and The Chelsea Hotel: The Songs of Leonard Cohen at The Firehall Arts Centre.
She also created a show called BLAK that explores Canada's Black history in music.
For Hey, Viola!, which opened in 2020 at the Anvil Centre in New Westminster and has toured B.C.'s interior and Kootenays, Ontario, Quebec and Prince Edward Island to rave reviews, Dos Santos said she breaks the fourth wall by speaking directly to the audience.
"I ask for a response," she said.
"It's a conversation. I ask, 'Anybody from Halifax in the house?' I'm very much present and looking at the audience for reaction."
Still, after so many shows, Dos Santos said she continues to peel back the layers to Desmond’s life and relate it to the current Black Lives Matter movement.
She also believes Desmond’s story should be highlighted in the school curriculum.
"The musical lifts her up from the $10 bill."
Hey, Viola! runs at the Evergreen Cultural Centre in Coquitlam (1205 Pinetree Way) from Sept. 26 to 30. There is a pre-show talk with Tracey Power on Sept. 26 and a Talkback Thursday with Krystle Dos Santos on Sept. 28. For tickets at $45/$38/$16, call the box office at 604-927-6555 or visit evergreenculturalcentre.ca.