A Friend Dies
Jack Toronto :Denis Simpson, legendary Canadian actor, singer, dancer, choreographer, director and playwright collapsed Wednesday evening, October 20, in Toronto of a massive brain hemorrhage. He was rushed to hospital but the extent of the brain damage rendered surgery out of the question. He died without gaining consciousness at approximately 8:00 a.m. on Friday October 22 with his family by his side. He was two weeks shy of his sixtieth birthday.
He was my friend.
Born in Jamaica and raised from age ten in Scarborough just east of Toronto, Denis was onstage in the Broadway production of “Jesus Christ Superstar” and the Toronto production of “Hair” in his early twenties. He is best known to thousands if not millions of Canadians as a host of TV Ontario’s Polka Dot Door program for young children. Vancouver became his base when he moved here to be in The Arts Club Theatre production of “Ain’t Misbehavin’” and after the show’s two year run Denis decided to stay on the west coast. The final two performances of his which I saw were as the Emcee of The Apollo Theater in “Buddy: The Buddy Holly Story” at The Arts Club Stanley Theatre in July and in his role as co-host, with Karen Lee-Morlang, of Queer Cabaret in August at The Roundhouse.
Following his death tributes appeared immediately in print media and online including “Denis Simpson Passes at 59” on The Afro News site. The outlets which announced his death included every major news organization in Canada, Wikipedia, the French language site of canoe.ca, the Chinese paper Sing Tao, and the site of Who’s Who in Black Canada. The Honourable James Moore, Minister of Canadian Heritage and Official Languages, issued a statement of recognition and condolence on behalf of the federal Government. Denis was able to touch people across the diverse cultures and languages that make up Canada’s mosaic.
I’d known Denis since the late 1970s when he was the host of The Polka Dot Door which my children watched as preschoolers but met him in person just four years ago when he participated in a children’s Christmas Service I attended at Christ Church Cathedral in Vancouver. Since that time I’d met him several times with friends after his performances or in social gatherings but our individual contact consisted of email and telephone conversations. That was about to change as we’d arranged to get together in Toronto where he’d gone to begin rehearsal for “A Year with Frog and Toad,” a children’s musical set to run at The Lorraine Kimsa Theatre for Young People from November to late December. My wife and I were there to visit with our daughter, her husband and our three grandchildren. Denis and I picked Sunday October 24 as the date for a one-on-one chat that never happened.
Our friendship was founded on the email messages and telephone conversations in which we’d we shared personal thoughts which ran deep. Denis was writing when he wasn’t performing and asked me to comment on the script of his latest play and on tentative plans to write new words for the Billie Holiday classic, “God Bless the Child (That Got His Own).” When he died I realized just how much I’d been looking forward to getting to know him better and the sense of loss was more severe than I could have imagined. Not as deep as that experienced by his family and friends who had known him much longer and more closely than I had, but I did grieve.
Life goes on and our grandson will go with his parents to see “ A Year with Frog and Toad” unaware that the original male lead, his grandpa’s friend, has died. But how will those with the awareness of great loss go on? By grieving and trusting they will emerge intact on the other side.
“There are no detours around the road of grief. It cannot be avoided by soaring high above. Ultimately one can only walk through that “dark night of the soul.” A Celtic poem says: “… be gentle with those who walk with grief … if it is you, be gentle with yourself.” In such is found God’s blessing. By The Rev. Jim Short, Ladner United Church, Special to The Delta Optimist October 30, 2010