JP Larocque has been a fan of Jackie Shane, and everything that she represented as a pioneering Black trans artist, for more than a decade. Historical records about the iconic figure in Toronto’s soul and R&B scene were sparse when Larocque first discovered her, and most of the information available was from a then-recently released CBC documentary I Got Mine: The Story of Jackie Shane. Larocque became “semi-obsessed” with Shane, both because of her music, as well as the idea of her as a mythical figure of Toronto’s queer past. They could not stop talking to their friends, and anyone else who would listen, about the iconic performer.
“Aside from having a phenomenal voice, aside from the songs themselves being so beautiful and layered, the bands that she worked with, the performances that she did, I found the storytelling that Jackie would do in her songs so incredible,” Larocque says.
At the time, it was unknown whether Shane was even still alive, and there were several rumours floating around about her—for example there is a popular but unverified fan theory that Shane was a cousin of Little Richard—which only added to the intrigue for Larocque. They remember that before the release of her 2017 compilation Any Other Way, vinyl copies of her live albums were rare, but not impossible to find.
“There was a live album that was on vinyl that was a little bit challenging to get, but there were still copies floating around,” Larocque says. However, they were able to find a copy sitting on the shelves of the Kops Records on Queen Street West in Toronto. “The salesperson was like ‘Oh cool what’s the story with this artist?’ and I was like ‘Oh, my god: Black, trans, incredible.”
According to Larocque, Toronto does a relatively poor job at preserving its history, especially when it comes to people from marginalized communities. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, Toronto was an extremely conservative town, says Larocque Shane’s lyrics and storytelling, as well as her ability to own who she was, helped Larocque come to terms with their own identity. “To hear that that was happening then gave me a sense of not only the ability to declare myself, but also to recognize that we have always existed, that our communities have always existed,” they say.
Years later, Larocque was approached to write a Heritage Minute about Shane. Since the early ‘90s, Heritage Minutes have played a significant role in the childhoods of Canadian youth and were often shown during the breaks of children’s shows, such as Mr. Dressup or Sesame Street.
Larocque was approached by Caitlin Brown, who ended up producing the short film, and who they had worked with in the past on Queens, a CBC comedy-mystery digital series following a cast of drag queens in Toronto.
Brown and her producing partner, Vanessa Magic, started bringing more people onto the project, and soon put a team together to tell this story, including directors Ayo Tsalithaba and Pat Mills, editor Nicole Sison, prop master Kyisha Williams, and hairstylist Erica Croft.
“[The producing team] did [their] very best to try and engage as much Black queer talent as possible and bring them in either in an official capacity or through mentorship. Bring them in and make sure that they were an active part of that creative process,” Larocque says.
When the team put out a call for auditions, several people passed it along to Ravyn Wngz . As well as being an actor and writer, Wngz is active in Toronto queer and Black activism circles, and is a member of the Toronto Black Lives Matter Steering Committee. She initially didn’t get the role, but was asked if she was willing to take on a supporting or background role. “And I said I’d be happy to do anything in support of Miss Jackie Shane. Absolutely,” Wngz says.
Two weeks later,Wngz auditioned again and got the role.
“I just felt really honoured to be able to represent someone who’s an icon to me. I love her music, what she stood for, her activism, her form of protest through her music and the way that she lived her life,” she says.
Having grown up in Bermuda and Atlanta, Wngz didn’t have access to Canadian television, and Heritage Minutes were not a staple in her life, as they were for Larocque. She had only become aware of this series when the short featuring Viola Desmond—a civil rights and women’s activist who in 1946 protested segregation by refusing to leave a “whites only” section of a Nova Scotia movie theatre—was released.
Historica Canada released a Heritage Minute in 2018 about Jim Egan, a prominent gay rights activist, but the most recent Heritage Minute on Jackie Shane places the focus on Canada’s Black trans experience, a perspective that has often been overlooked in queer and Canadian history. Media depictions of trans people, and especially trans people of colour have often focused on poverty, trauma and struggle. Wngz says that while it’s important to tell those stories for people to understand what queer people of colour go through, she wants to see more focus on the positive aspects of the community.
“I want to see stories about the coffee shop owner who held space for trans youth to gather, local heroes making us much more human to the world, ultimately to a goal of safety,” Wngz says “The more people are aware of us, and more people are aware of our contributions, and how they also are benefiting from them, hopefully, the more people will embrace trans people, and specifically trans youth will be able to see themselves as all these various possibilities of who they can be.”
Although the film was only 60-seconds long, the creators of this Minute had to pay extra attention to detail, from the set design to the costumes, in order to ensure historical accuracy. To recreate The Sapphire Tavern, the venue that Shane made her home, and performed at most often, the team had to find similar locations from this era, and imagine how it may have looked, to the best of their abilities and resources. They settled on the Skyline Restaurant, a retro-looking diner in the Parkdale neighbourhood in Toronto.
When it came to recreating Shane’s look, they looked through old photographs to recreate the exact costumes, hair and makeup she would wear. On the first day of their shoot, Wngz walked in with her typical set of long nails, and was told by Historica Canada that they would have to be removed as the style was not worn in Shane’s era. The makeup artist, who Wngz had developed a good relationship with, ended up having to cut them off for her before the shoot began. “It was really hard,” Wngz recalls. “It was heartbreaking for that to be happening.” It made her think about how in Shane’s time, the standards of what Black people, queer people and women were allowed to wear was so controlled, and despite this, she was still able to became a huge figure in Toronto’s music scene. “There’s something about that, that really just shook me about the resiliency of trans people, and just validated my experiences of street harassment and bullying that I have personally felt. And I’m so grateful for her offering for what she gave.”
The production team made sure that they approximated the most accurate look they could achieve, to ensure it resonated as well as possible on camera. “Each of those professionals who worked on the project do an incredible amount of research into making sure that even the smallest things that appear on screen for a brief moment, not just a minute, even a brief second of time, has to be accurate,” Larocque says. “It was cool to see that.”
“Down to the cut of the suits, with the costume designers, to the hair, to the makeup, the overdrawn eyebrows, there’s just so much detail,” Wngz confirms. “Every person who was a part of this crew was really invested in doing this in a really great way. So as an artist, I got to just be an actor, and just stay in that world and let Ravyn leave the chat and allow Jackie to take hold and do what she needs to do.”
Both Wngz and Laroque hope that the Heritage Minute gives Canadians an understanding of their history outside of a white, cisgender, colonial lens. Wngz said that she hopes to see TV shows, movies, books, even graphic novels about Shane, as there is so much that can be done with her story. “Jackie Shane was not a person who was like ‘Woe is me.’ And so she didn’t really give a lot of those particular kinds of stories, she kind of brushed them off. And so I felt like they did a really good job at honouring the way she would have told her own story,” Wngz says.
Larocque says that it is important to highlight history that deviates from the way Canadians typically understand their past. “What I love about Jackie’s story is that Jackie existing and putting this work out in being who she was, showed that there were these incredibly important voices that existed within our communities, that existed within our cities, and existed within our country who didn’t get the platform, and didn’t get the opportunity to be recorded in the history books in the same way.”