The curtain rises and a little Black girl sings Why Can’t I. Despite her battle against racism, she grows up to become a woman singing Yes I Can as a First Lady of the United States.

Michelle Obama’s life story is a powerful one — one that is now attracting audiences to Centrepointe in Ottawa in the form of a new musical called Yes I Can!, by Maple Leaf Theatre Productions, an Ottawa-based theatre company.

The company says this is the first Canadian-written Black musical to be performed in Ottawa featuring a cast of Black actors.

The musical features the life of the first African-American First Lady of the U.S.

Michelle Obama grew up in a working class family in Chicago. She came out of that upbringing to get into Princeton University and then Harvard Law School, becoming a corporate lawyer and finally a First Lady.

The experiences of Obama and her family tell people about sacrifice, love and never abandoning their dreams, said Gordon Carruth, composer of Yes I Can! and owner of Maple Leaf Theatre Productions.

“Yes, I can. And that’s the message to everybody. Don’t let anybody spoil your dream. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it,” he said.

Carruth is an ACTRA award-winning playwright and composer whose musicals and plays have been performed across Canada and the world. He has written musicals about many political figures, including one about Sir John A. Macdonald.

As an iconic woman, Obama’s experiences are worth telling, said Carruth. But what really attracted him was the story of Obama’s parents, especially her father.

Living in the south side of Chicago, Obama’s family was not rich, but she was unaware of it because of the love from her parents and the sacrifices they made. Carruth said the story reminds him of his parents.

“Much like my own father (and mother) in the Depression, they came from Scotland, and they didn’t have any money. But my brother and I didn’t know that because they sacrificed. That appealed to me as much as anything else,” said Carruth.

Carruth says Obama’s father never quit helping his family live a better life. He developed multiple sclerosis at age 34. The degenerative nervous system diseased not deter him.

“He went (to work) from one cane to two canes to crutches to a walker to a wheelchair, and he never missed a day of work,” said Carruth. “It’s all about the kids. That was his motto.”

“Yes, I can. And that’s the message to everybody. Don’t let anybody spoil your dream. Don’t let anybody tell you you can’t do it.”

– Gordon Carruth, composer of the musical Yes I Can!

As the only child in the cast, Leïla Cortes Jabouin, who plays the six-year-old Obama, is performing her first musical in a language she hardly speaks.

She could not read the English scripts at the audition a year before because English was her third language. Now, she can memorize her lines and read in English. 

Jabouin’s mother, Philippa, was key in helping her daughter practice. She taught Jabouin how to read the script and sing in English by having Jabouin repeat after her, sentence by sentence. She also played other roles with Jabouin to help her know how it feels on stage.

“For me, it’s the first experience as well. Because she’s so young, I am practically present all the time, and almost part of the crew and the cast while they are working or rehearsing. I can’t just leave her alone,” said Philippa Jabouin. 

Rehearsals often ended late at night, but Jabouin still had to go to school in the mornings. Acting with adults is also a challenge for her.

“The story of her development to me is the story in this musical. Just like Michelle said ‘Yes I can,’ so did this little kid,” said Carruth.

The musical features two local performers as the grown-up Michelle Obama and Barack Obama. Racquel Sutherland is an actress and the vice-president of the Jamaican Ottawa Community Association, and Jamaal Amir Akbari, an arts educator and a former English Poet Laureate in Ottawa.

Akbari said he appreciates being part of this all-Black cast. 

“An all-Black cast is not something you see in an Ottawa production for the stage theater, so being a part of that history in Ottawa is something that I’m gonna cherish,” said Akbari. “First time, but hopefully there’s many more.”

This image shows the cast members of the musical Yes I Can!
The cast of the musical Yes I Can! now playing at Centrepointe, from left to right: Racquel Sutherland, Johanne Boisvenu Henry, Evadne Ramalho, Lesley Hammil, Leïla Cortes Jabouin, and Jamaal Amir Akbari. [Photo © Anmiao Wu]

Founded in 2001, initially under the name GOYA Theatre Productions, Maple Leaf Theatre Productions has produced many Canadian plays and musicals, such as Anne and Gilbert. It has been working with the Meridian Theatres at Centrepointe since 2001.

“An important part of the theatres’ mandate is to help nurture the local arts community throughout its spectrum of practice. I am delighted that Maple Leaf Productions has chosen Meridian Theatres at Centrepointe to present the world premiere of a Canadian musical,” said Allan Sansom, artistic producer and manager at the Meridian Theatres at Centrepointe.

The musical is also raising funds for the Dementia Society of Ottawa and Renfrew County.

Audiences can see this production until Oct. 28.