Black Powder: Estevan 1931


75 pages
Contains Illustrations
ISBN 0-919926-13-4






Reviewed by David E. Kemp

David E. Kemp is a drama professor at Queen’s University and the
author of The Pleasures and Treasures of the United Kingdom.


At the stroke of midnight on September 7, 1931, the miners of the Souris coal field in southeastern Saskatchewan, having formed a union a few days previously, walked off the job to reinforce their demands for increased wages and improved working conditions. The strike lasted a month, during which some three to four hundred miners and their families clashed with police on the streets of Estevan in a bloody riot culminating in three deaths, a number of injuries, and the conviction of several of the participants on charges arising out of the confrontation.

The Estevan riot forms the background to Rex Deverell’s Black Powder, the third in a series of forceful and controversial plays about Saskatchewan history. Deverell is a well-known playwright whose work for the stage includes many plays for children as well as adults. His Boiler Room Suite has been widely produced and received the 1978 Canadian Authors Association Award. Before Black Powder Deverell was responsible for Number One Hard, a collective documentary about the grain industry, and Medicare, a play about the 1962 crisis in Saskatchewan. Deverell’s position as playwright-in-residence at Regina’s Globe Theatre has given him a unique opportunity to turn local contemporary and historical events into exciting and meaningful theatre. The technique Deverell employs in constructing his Saskatchewan “docu-dramas” is to rely on documentary material not merely as a source but as actual spoken text. Only where written contemporary material is unavailable does he attempt to reconstruct scenes by guesswork. This technique is especially helpful in dealing with controversial or politically tendentious subjects because it lends an air of authority to the work. Authority alone, however, is not the only theatrical criterion needed for an exciting drama. In Number One Hard the author quite consciously used the exploitation of the small farmer by the large grain companies for his own artistic and thematic ends. In Black Powder Deverell is content to tell the story on its own terms and let it dictate its own message. Geoffrey Ursell, who collaborated with Deverell on Number One Hard, wrote the songs for the production. The music has a dark angry quality and identifies itself with humanity struggling against the oppression of economics and technology.

Although Deverell admits that the play has met with mixed response from theatre critics, it has received warm audience acceptance. In Regina it broke all box office and attendance records while its performance at Estevan was greeted with a standing ovation. Like all good regional “people’s theatre,” Black Powder is unlikely to travel well. But for the people of Saskatchewan, the play, Deverell, and the policy of the Globe Theatre, Regina, are obviously providing a meaningful theatre experience that is closely identified with their day-to-day lives.


Deverell, Rex, “Black Powder: Estevan 1931,” Canadian Book Review Annual Online, accessed July 21, 2024,