03/05/2015 11:41 EST | Updated 05/05/2015 05:59 EDT

Firehall Arts Centre production tells story of cross-dressing Jewish immigrant

A new play at Vancouver's Firehall Arts Centre tells the story of a French Jewish woman who landed in 18th-century Quebec disguised as a Christian man. 

In the early 1700s, Jewish people who wanted to come to Canada from overseas could only do so if they agreed to convert to Christianity.

Esther Brandeau was one of those people — she landed on the shores of Quebec in 1738 disguised not only as a Christian, but as a man.

Toronto-based playwright Heather Hermant has spent the last decade obsessed with Brandeau's story.

Research of family history leads to discovery

A decade ago, she was researching her great-grandmother's life as part of an assignment for a university performance class. As she was doing that, she stumbled across the story of Brandeau and how she came to Canada.

"I was just sort of staggered by this story, and most staggered by the fact that I had never heard it before," says Hermant. "It just made me think about the courage and risk that it must have taken."

Hermant came across a brief passage in a book that described how Brandeau was discovered to be a woman, and a Jewish woman at that.

"This person was, I later found out, held under a kind of house arrest for about a year during which time efforts where made to try to convert her to Christianity," says Hermant.

According to the records she found, the woman refused to be converted and was later ordered to be deported.

Cross-dressing not uncommon at the time

Hermant later discovered that it wasn't uncommon for women at the time to disguise themselves as men.

"Often these were cases of younger women who were passing themselves off for economic reasons, for migration reasons," says Hermant.

As a queer woman who also exists in both Jewish and Christian worlds, Hermant says she identified with Brandeau.

In her research, Hermant came across bits and pieces of information, like colonial archival records of correspondence with France.

But still, there were gaps. So ultimately she decided on a form that would be a complex combination of physical theatre, video, and live music that weaves her own story in with Brandeau's.

"I felt like I didn't want to make it a single narrative art," says Brandeau. "So I started to think about form, and how the form that I created might speak to that uncertainty and those fragmented bits of information."

The end result is called ribcage: this wide passage. It's playing from Mar. 4 to 8 at the Firehall Arts Centre (the Mar. 3 performance was cancelled due to Wednesday's nearby chemical fire).

To listen to the full interview, click on the audio labelled: Playwright discovers untold story of one of Canada's first Jewish immigrants