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Vinessa Antoine on how ‘Diggstown’ changed representation on Canadian TV

As she prepares for the final season of “Diggstown” to air, star Vinessa Antoine is finding it hard to accept that the show she sees as an “anomaly” on Canadian television is coming to an end.

“I was hoping that maybe this won’t be the final season, but I was treating it like it was the last, because I was super emotional,” Antoine, who plays lawyer Marcie Diggs, says in an interview ahead of the season 4 premiere on CBC on Wednesday.

“Even hearing anyone outside of our family circle of ‘Diggstown’ say that it’s ending with such 100 per cent certainty, even now, feels like something I just don’t really want to hear.”

Billed by CBC as “the first Black Canadian lead of an hour-long drama on broadcast television in Canada,” Antoine says it’s hard to part with a character who defied onscreen stereotypes.

“I’ve been … auditioning for more than half my life, I’ve read a ton of scripts, and when I read this, I said, ‘oh, thank God,’” says the former regular on “General Hospital.” “This is what I’d been saying for years. Why couldn’t we play Black characters that were outside the box?”

In some ways, Diggs followed legal procedural tropes as a strong female protagonist who traded in her big-city law career to prioritize her community.

But her 2019 arrival on the small screen — a surfboard tucked beneath one arm, clothed in a wetsuit as she advances towards an ocean — made it clear that Diggs wouldn’t be boxed in by genre conventions.

For series creator Floyd Kane, Diggs was an ideal — the Black Canadian lawyer some would least expect to see mounting a surfboard before her day job.

“At a point, it became really important to me to actually see that image of a Black woman surfing in the Atlantic, and it’s that image that really started the whole show,” says Kane, a Nova Scotia native who spent a good deal of time on Martinique Beach.

“It was one of those places where I never saw a whole lot of Black people frolicking in the water growing up.”

It seemed apt that the TV series would largely be set in North Preston, one of Nova Scotia’s oldest Black communities, says Kane, who drew from his own roots in nearby East Preston to give the show a lived-in feel.

“I wanted to focus on the way that these communities tend to be stigmatized by the media,” says Kane. “That was very important to me in the sense that if you don’t see yourself represented in the media, then you don’t exist.”

The final season takes inspiration from real-life issues making their way through the court system — including systemic racism, anti-transgender discrimination and challenges to COVID-19 regulations — as a struggling Diggs deals with the physical and mental hurdles from last season’s events involving a church shooting, while facing defections and threats from all sides.

For Antoine, playing a character who is often at the centre of such visible issues can come with an added sense of urgency by the very nature of her own visibility onscreen.

“I’ve felt an enormous amount of pressure to be great,” says Antoine. “I wanted Black women and Black people in Canada to see it and say, ‘yes, I’m proud of that,’ but I also wanted the gatekeepers to see it and consider the idea of bringing on another show like it.”

Both Kane and Antoine acknowledge that the TV landscape has shifted since “Diggstown” debuted in 2019.

Canadian creators are increasingly pitching stories with diverse characters and perspectives. But when it comes to what gets greenlit, both Antoine and Kane say “Diggstown” stands out in a prime-time lineup dominated by shows with white leads.

“It feels like the show is still an anomaly in itself,” says Antoine. “I can say that I don’t think I’ll be able to do another role like this, especially in Canada for the rest of my life. This was a special time and very special opportunity and I think that we will not be seeing a show like this for a very long time.”

Though he felt it was time to end “Diggstown” in order to pursue other projects, Kane says he and the cast are leaving behind a legacy they’ll cherish.

“I wanted to create a show of contemporary Black people and people of colour living their lives. That’s always been my thing,” says Kane. “I just don’t want this to be the last time because that would be really unfortunate, and shameful if I’m being honest.”

The final season of “Diggstown” premieres on CBC and its streaming service Gem at 8 p.m. on Wednesday.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Oct. 12, 2022.

Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press