This year, Vancouver’s most innovative performing-arts festival takes a step forward by looking back—some of the time, at least. Several shows in the 2015 PuSh schedule—including 7 Important Things, Sonic Elder, and The Road Forward—are rooted in the cultural ferment of the 1960s, but those seeking hazy psychedelic nostalgia aren’t necessarily the intended audience.
The most overtly retro of the three, Sonic Elder, casts a look back to the gritty rock-and-soul club scene that predated the Summer of Love, as recalled by a sextet of Vancouver music veterans. Those players—who include music director Bill Sample on piano and R&B hitmaker Harry Walker on vocals—didn’t all play together at the time, but they’ve now been asked to form a new band and buff it until it’s bright and shining, all the while telling their stories to the brains behind coproducers the Chop Theatre and Theatre Conspiracy.
This hasn’t been easy, according to singer Joni Moore, whose show-biz career began when she was a wide-eyed preteen, billed as “B.C.’s Brenda Lee”. “We didn’t know there were going to be 17, 18 rehearsals,” says the Nanaimo resident in a telephone interview, but her good-natured kvetching belies the fact that she’s enjoying the slow process of emerging from a more-than-decade-long retirement, and that she has fond memories of the days when every Vancouver corner seemed to host a music venue.
“Everybody got along,” she says, when asked about the community that produced guitar innovator Jimi Hendrix and comedian Tommy Chong, among many others. “I had a lot of black friends, Chinese friends, whatever, and everybody got along just great. It wasn’t like in the States, with all the fighting and all that.”
A darker view of the ’60s and their aftermath will be on view in 7 Important Things, in which the STO Union theatre company’s Nadia Ross collaborates with her Wakefield, Quebec, neighbour George Acheson to tell his story. A kind of ’60s Everyman, Acheson lost his family to the culture wars, having been exiled from his home for having long hair. He hasn’t lost his memory, however, and in this production the sexagenarian offers insightful commentary on how then relates to now through speech, song, dance, and mask-play.
Part of the appeal, one suspects, will lie in the tension between Acheson’s charm and optimism—he’s a survivor, after all—and his dystopic view of the present and the future. “We’re all in a train racing full-speed into the side of a cliff, and everyone’s fighting about where they’re going to sit,” he tells the Straight in an interview from Ross’s home, not without adding a wry chuckle. It’s a far cry from the days of peace and love, when he and his fellow hippies were intent on changing the world.
“That was what we were all about: making the world a better place to live, right?” he says. “And we did fine. The [Vietnam] war was stopped, segregation was ended.…A lot of us thought, ‘Well, we’ve won. The war is over, segregation is over, we’re going to end racism, and legalizing pot might be next.’ We thought things were good enough, and so it seemed like the whole movement disappeared or vanished and everyone got jobs, or did whatever they did.”
Acheson might mourn that retreat, but he’d surely take heart from The Road Forward, which suggests that while the social movements of the 1960s have changed their shape, they’re far from extinct. In what promises to be an inspiring and uplifting music-theatre production, red diva projects director Marie Clements, Tuscarora musician Jennifer Kreisberg, and an all-star cast of First Nations singers have taken their inspiration from the pioneering Native Brotherhood of B.C., which actually won some of its battles against the systemic discrimination practised a half-century ago.
Don’t expect a polemic, however: the organization’s story will be told primarily through projected visuals, while Clements and Kreisberg’s songs will focus on the positive.
“I really want audiences to take away the essence of our theme song, ‘The Road Forward’. It’s like a wiping-of-the-tears ceremony, in my opinion,” Kreisberg says, in a telephone interview from New Britain, Connecticut. “There’s got to be a new paradigm, and we have to start looking at the planet as a planet. Yes, the variety and differences that make us all up are amazing, but I have a kid, and we need to, like, come together and figure it all out before we’re totally fucked.
“I mean, we’re fucked, but we’re not totally fucked,” she adds, laughing. “And I hope that what people take away, especially my own people, is that even though the pain is there, and colonization is there, and that shit is very real, we have to find something good in every day, and we have to work together. The message might not come out that clear, but I’m just hoping that the music will provide a spark.”
7 Important Things is at SFU Woodward’s Studio T in the Goldcorp Centre for the Arts next Thursday and Friday (January 29 and 30). Sonic Elder plays Performance Works next Thursday (January 29), as part of Club PuSh. The Road Forward runs at the York Theatre from February 5 to 7. All are part of the PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.