Arts and Entertainment

Theatre Orangeville presents Jeremiah Sparks as Maurice Ruddick

February 2, 2023   ·   0 Comments

By Constance Scrafield

A three-way “Google Meet” (online video call) saw the two of us, Jeremiah Sparks and this writer, in our separate indoors, sheltered from inclement winter weather. Soon to return, David Nairn was resplendent in the Caribbean, tanned in a linen shirt, sitting on a well-earned deck outside while we chatted. This was the terms of our interview with Mr. Sparks about his imminent performance of Beneath Springhill, the terrifying yet hopeful one-man show about the 1958 coal mine disaster in Springhill, Nova Scotia and the heroic African-Canadian, Maurice Ruddick, who kept alive the last men and himself to be rescued, after nine days.

The Theatre Orangeville production of Beneath Springhill opens on Feb. 8 and runs to Feb. 26.

For such a profound piece as Beneath Springhill, plenty of very different aspects are up for discussion. We began with the frame of mind of men who go down 14,000 feet to bring up the materials needed to power light and heat.

Said Mr. Sparks, “It’s crazy to think about. They know they may not come back up. Other disasters have happened but they are also desperate. The only way to feed the family is by being a miner, if you lived in Springhill… one of the major jobs.”

He told us the lesson: you don’t go into the mines with that thought. When it happened, Maurice’s mentality is what kept them all alive.

Yet, Maurice Ruddick was a Black man in a time when racism was a fact of life and, as a modern Black man with no need to tolerate racism, Mr. Sparks had to move into the idea of it being accepted.

Still, while his neighbour snubbed Maurice and refused to talk to him, in the mines, they were family and the men treated him as one of them. Down in the mines, they depended on each other and skin colour was irrelevant. 

Jeremiah Sparks has performed this show twice, the second time in Halifax. Eager to share the story of taking such a show to Nova Scotia, Mr. Sparks told us, “Seventeen relatives of Maurice came to see the show. There were lots of Black people in the audience. They gave me the stamp of approval. Maurice’s daughter was there. She’s a singer too and she gave me one of her CD’s. It was really wonderful and so great to meet them all.”

The same attention to the show is happening for Theatre Orangeville too. The Black Business Association in Shelburne “booked a show,” David Nairn told us. “It’s so exciting to see how the community here is changing.”

Talking about how he and Maurice differed and what it takes to be him, Mr. Sparks said, “We are in different eras. For him racism was ‘fine’ and I am fine with that [historical fact] – I had to feel those things with him.”

What the two men have in common is their love of music. It has “gotten me through my own times. Bringing myself to accepting racism in a time [when it was acceptable], the fear, the claustrophobia – when I put myself there – they had three feet to crawl through when the catastrophe hit.”

There are ten characters for Mr. Sparks to portray: Maurice himself, the six [white] other miners, Maurice’s wife, his daughter and a reporter.

Knowing Maurice intimately, “one of his favourite things is a peanut butter and banana sandwich…”

Speaking of bravery, what does it take to bring this story and these people to the stage as a solo show? Standing on that live platform before a couple of hundred people, putting one’s self and soul on the line for their instant reaction, their spontaneous approval – or not?

Mr. Nairn knows: “Courage, faith and blind luck,” he confirmed. “Talent, yes but after those.”

In a brief digression, Mr. Nairn asked about Mr. Sparks’ going back to Shaw (Festival), where he told us, he is directing the Gospel Choir for the production of The Amen Corner by James Baldwin. Choral singing is a passion for Jeremiah Sparks, from his life in Nova Scotia with the choir at the Cherry Brook United Baptist Church and as director for the Nova Scotia Mass Choir for many years before his move to Toronto.

Also at Shaw in August 2022, Mr. Sparks is playing the role of Eli in August Wilson’s play Gem of the Ocean.

Last year, he performed the role of another hero’s story in November 2022, when he acted in the play 34, which is the “theatrical play” of the life of Roughriders legend George Reed. The Globe Theatre commissioned the production to coincide with the Grey Cup in Regina. 

“George Reed came to the opening night,” said Jeremiah Sparks, who told us everything about him, smiling. “And he came back another night too.”

Mr. Sparks shared his views about this development and achieving not only the ten roles of Beneath Springhill but dealing with the play’s intensity and the internal struggle of each of the characters within the story.

“What I’ve learned, playing all these characters when I got to play all these roles – I learned I’m quite talented,” he said. “What you can learn – what you can do – I was very fearful of this and I pushed through as an actor. I realized there’s no real limit – once you get over the fear – there’s no limit to the amount of stuff you can put in your head. And keep them there.”

He told us how: “By being true – to myself, to Maurice and to the audience – being true.

“That’s how I do it.”

Beneath Springhill opens at Theatre Orangeville on Feb. 8 and runs to Feb. 26. For more information and to purchase tickets go to or call the lovely people at the box office 519-942-3423.

Readers Comments (0)

Please note: Comment moderation is enabled and may delay your comment. There is no need to resubmit your comment.