On a cobbled street, police armed with metre-long truncheons are beating a dishevelled teenager. Behind them, more cops on sleek black horses ride into a small mob, their weapons raised. With their backs to a 19th-century building’s faí§ade, the crowd has nowhere to run, and a young woman is screaming.
Tripoli? Cairo? Toronto? No, this furious scene took place in Vancouver on August 7, 1971, during what is still referred to as the Gastown Riot. It seems like ancient history now, with our city given over to the cult of youth and a new-age juice baron at its helm, but back then our civic fathers were at war with their children—and those are the days recalled in Yippies in Love, a new musical that aims to shed fresh light on an old affront.
“Yippies were basically hippies that had been politicized,” explains Bob Sarti, long-time Downtown Eastside community activist and author of this new Theatre in the Raw undertaking.
And while his story spins around the budding relationship between two prototypical peaceniks, it’s leavened with references to the Gastown Riot and other protests of the time, including a lighthearted attempt to levitate the Vancouver police headquarters.
“Vancouver was kind of the protest capital of Canada,” says Sarti, recalling the early 1970s from his home on Hornby Island. “There was a demonstration every day, practically, and the Yippies were really in the middle of it. It was just the upsurge of the counterculture, you know: sex, drugs, rock ’n’ roll. Everything was happening. It was a very exciting time to be on the street, and I think there’s a lot to be learned from that.”
Somewhat self-deprecatingly, the former Vancouver Sun reporter and early Georgia Straight contributor adds that his script and songs started out as a simple exercise in nostalgia.
“It was kind of a fun, wonderful moment in our younger days,” he says. “So I guess we’re really just reliving our youth.”
But he and composer Bill Sample, another hippie-era survivor, want to make sure that Yippies in Love is more than just a couple of old guys telling stories. In addition to casting the charismatic Steve Maddock and Danielle St. Pierre in the lead roles, Sarti has published a bite-sized version of the plot as the world’s first “Twittoir”, online at Twitter , while Sample’s score includes at least one hip-hop number.
More tellingly, though, Sarti and director Jay Hamburger sought advice from today’s radical youth to make sure that their antiauthoritarian message comes through loud and clear. Members of the East Van collective known as the Purple Thistle Centre were asked to read the script, with an eye for its contemporary relevance.
“They made all kinds of suggestions, a number of which we adopted,” says Sarti. Those included adding an extra character, in the form of a young activist who’s looking back at the Yippies for inspiration. “By the end of the play, she’s seeing how it all fits—and she realizes that people shouldn’t get too discouraged with how bad things are. We’re still continuing [to work for change].”
As for how the Yippies impacted local culture and politics, Sarti says that today’s “direct action” protests owe a lot to the ’60s and ’70s. “Before, they would just have committees or pen letters and stuff, but now people go out to blockade things and literally demand more of a role in the city.”
And this magazine played a part, too: as Yippies in Love mentions, the peaceful rally against marijuana prohibition that led to the Gastown Riot was first announced in the Georgia Straight’s pages. When Straight contributors Kenneth Lester and Eric Sommer were subpoenaed to testify at the inquiry into the riot, they refused to reveal their sources—and, reluctantly, the judge upheld their rights. The freedoms we enjoy today really are rooted in the battles of the past.