Time in thirsty
The play takes place in shifting time. It moves between 1982 and 1974-78. Part of the story is being recounted; part of it happens in real time. At the beginning of the play Alan is deceased. His presence onstage is emblematic of his constant presence in the lives of Julia, Chloe and Girl, even long after his passing.
1970 – Julia migrates to Toronto. Girl is only 7 at the time.
1974 - Alan joins Julia in Toronto. Girl, now 11, is left with Chloe.
1976 - Girl, age 13, and Chloe arrive in Toronto.
1978 - Alan is shot and killed by the police.
1982 - Parts of the story are recounted.
thirsty is inspired by an actual event, the shooting of Jamaican-born immigrant Albert Johnson. While the play itself and its characters are fictitious, Johnson’s killing in 1979 was the impetus for playwright Dionne Brand’s creation of the piece. The play grew out of Brand’s lyrical poem of the same name.
On August 26, 1979, Johnson was shot in the rooming house where he lived in the Vaughan Road and Oakwood Avenue neighbourhood. His assailants were Toronto Police officers Walter Cargnelli and William Inglis. He was fatally wounded.
In court, a pathologist testified that Johnson was likely kneeling or crouching at the foot of the staircase when he was shot. Because of the angle at which the bullet entered his stomach, and the fact that it then travelled downward, it was asserted that he was shot from above and was unlikely to have been posing an immediate threat to police. One of Johnson's children testified that her father was kneeling and shot execution-style. Despite the testimony of both Johnson's daughter and the pathologist, Constables Cargnelli and Inglis were both acquitted of the crime.
The death of Albert Johnson was a watershed moment for the black community in Toronto. The widespread view was that Johnson had been murdered by police because he was a black man, and that had he been Caucasian, he would have been viewed and treated differently.
The case was the city’s first high-profile accusation of what came to be known as racial profiling. Reaction was intense and immediate, and triggered massive demonstrations against police brutality toward Toronto’s black population. As a result of the killing, activist Dudley Laws formed the Albert Johnson Defense Committee Against Police Brutality and, on October 14, 1979, a rally was held at Nathan Phillips Square. The Committee put forth three demands:
- Officers Cargnelli and Inglis must be charged with murder, not manslaughter.
- The Province of Ontario and its Attorney-General Roy McMurtry must create an independent civilian review board to investigate public complaints of police brutality.
- The provision of compensation for Johnson's wife and children by the Toronto Police through the Albert Johnson Family Fund.
The Albert Johnson Defense Committee Against Police Brutality was the forerunner of the Black Action Defense Committee, created in 1988 after the shooting death of another black man, Lester Donaldson, by Toronto Police. In 2000, the Black Action Defense Committee staged a march in Albert Johnson’s neighbourhood of Vaughan and Oakwood in North Central Toronto, to the nearby Toronto Police 13th Division, in protest of Johnson's killing.