Questions have always had a foothold in Lwam Ghebrehariat’s life. As an actor, he engages himself in interesting, and sometimes downright controversial works, like Out the Window and last summer’s Homegrown, a play centred around one member of the terrorist group dubbed the Toronto 18. He asked questions throughout his undergraduate degree at the University of Alberta, where he majored in philosophy. And now, as he finishes his final year at the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law, the only question left for Ghebrehariat is: what’s next?
Ghebrehariat was born in Edmonton in 1982. His parents immigrated to Canada from Eritrea, a small African country that declared its independence from Ethiopia in 1993. He went to an arts-based high school in Alberta where, as a shy kid, he was drawn to drama. “I had some drama teachers who encouraged me, who gave me opportunities and I think that put me on a path.”
Right after high school, he moved to Montreal to study acting at the National Theatre School of Canada. At 21, Ghebrehariat returned to Alberta. Feeling young and inexperienced, he decided to go back to school, enrolling at the University of Alberta. “My parents always emphasized education,” he says. “I convinced my parents that going to theatre school was a good idea, but I also made an unofficial deal with my dad that I’d still go to university.”
Having left home so young, Ghebrehariat says he felt the need to reconnect with his family and learn more from his parents. He developed an interest in his family’s culture. “I came home one summer and my mother was writing her autobiography in Tigrinya,” he says. “We translated it together into English.” He won a position at the University of Alberta’s Canada Research Chair Humanities Computing Studio. His project cumulated in a web site (crcstudio.org/eritrean) devoted to the translation and archiving of Eritrean folk tales. “It was a chance for me to learn from my parents about the culture that they grew up in,” he says.
However, his start at the University of Alberta wasn’t as clear and focused as his web site. “I found myself skipping biology classes to sit in on philosophy classes and I think part of it was that I was looking for a moral compass, trying to figure out what am I going to do with my life.” Realizing that philosophy is a field where these questions are often brought up, Ghebrehariat switched his major. He liked his studies, but his questions weren’t being answered. “Philosophy doesn’t answer questions,” he says. “It sort of raises even more questions.”
Regardless, Ghebrehariat was able to figure out what his interests were and where he wanted to go next. “I wanted to help people with the work that I do,” he says. “I had actually met a lawyer while I was in theatre school . . . and he planted this seed in my head. The most interesting things that I had done up to that point involved the law.”
While in theatre school, Ghebrehariat had several roles in the school’s production of The Laramie Project, a play based on interactions and interviews with a small community following the murder of a young gay man. “I realized that theatre is connected to social issues,” he says. “And that’s the kind of work that I want to do.”
The final decision to enter law school was drawn from a situation that Ghebrehariat was involved in while studying in Alberta. “I was a witness in a criminal case. I saw a guy pull a knife on a bus driver . . . there were some interventions, we did what we needed to do to defuse the situation.” Ghebrehariat was called to court, but, as the man pleaded guilty, didn’t need to take the stand. This experience further pointed him to a career in law. “The whole situation was . . . full of drama,” he says, smiling. “And as an actor, I like drama.”
Witnessing the courtroom proceedings, Ghebrehariat realized his interests in acting and philosophy could come together with a career in law. “The courtroom seemed like a very theatrical place, but at the same time connecting and making a difference in people’s lives,” he says. “I thought, this is interesting, I think I’ll see what this is like.”
He applied to law school and was admitted to the University of Toronto’s Faculty of Law. But it was not all sunshine and roses. Ghebrehariat pauses and looks out the large windows at the snow outside. People are walking briskly by, bundled against the chill. He’s thinking about the moment when questions stormed back into his life. At the start of his second year of law school, he wanted to quit. But in the end, it was theatre that brought him back to the courts. While at a conference in Montreal, Ghebrehariat visited his former theatre school. A teacher there invited him to join a workshop in Toronto. They were doing a “very legal play” called Out the Window, about the death of Otto Vass, a 55-year-old man who died in August 2000 following a struggle with Toronto police officers outside a convenience store. “This was the first time since coming to law school that law and theatre really came together,” he says. “And it was great.” He stayed in law school, developing a fondness for labour law.
Ghebrehariat followed his performance in Out the Window with the lead role in the controversial Homegrown. Written by a law school graduate, and based on her interactions with Shareef Abdelhaleem, Homegrown was widely criticized for its apparent sympathy for the Toronto 18. Newspapers blasted it as terror propaganda; Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared his disapproval for its alleged glorification of terrorism — all before the play had even opened.
Homegrown premiered the same week Ghebrehariat had his articling interviews. “My face was on the cover [of the Toronto Sun] and it says ‘DEVIL’ right across my chest,” he says, laughing and shaking his head. “I thought, ‘this is bad timing.’” Because of the media attention, Homegrown was sold out opening night, and nearly every performance after that. “There’s nothing like having your face on the cover of a newspaper,” he laughs. “It was a good way to get my name and my face out there.”
Ghebrehariat’s first interview — which he went to with a full beard — was the position he ended up taking. “I’ll be articling at a firm called Cavalluzzo Hayes Shilton McIntyre & Cornish, and they do work around justice in the workplace,” he says. “They hired me even though the Toronto Sun called me the devil.”
Ghebrehariat is also preparing for the Wilson Moot competition. “Acting experience definitely comes in handy,” he says. “Especially when I’m arguing cases or moots in front of judges!”