We Are the People gives power to Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside

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      The usual urban analogies break down when you’re examining Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside. The embattled but historic neighbourhood is both melting pot and patchwork quilt: the place where successive waves of immigrants first settled before pouring out into the rest of our province, but also a locale in which their cultural traditions—including a history of First Nations settlement that goes back at least 3,000 years—have been maintained almost unbroken. In terms of income, the DTES is one of Canada’s poorest regions, but in terms of its human heritage, it’s immeasurably rich.

      Those riches are the focus of We Are the People, a community-oriented musical review assembled by Vancouver Moving Theatre’s Savannah Walling. Freshly retooled to reflect our city’s 125th anniversary, it collects highlights from earlier productions such as the Carnegie Community Opera Project’s Condemned, which lambasted predatory landlords, and VMT’s The Shadows Project, a moving treatment of addiction. But the overall tone, according to singer Gena Thompson, is celebratory.

      “That’s a big part of it,” the DTES resident says in a telephone interview with the Straight. “Basically, it’s about having something of value to offer that people will enjoy and that also tells the truth about us—something that’s not all about drugs and people humiliating themselves.”

      Thompson knows what she’s talking about. When she’s not singing or working on her photography, she’s the president of the Carnegie Community Centre, a former library that’s now the Downtown Eastside’s de facto city hall. And while she’s aware that the area’s problems must be addressed in the political arena, she’s sympathetic to the notion that art is a way of empowering the powerless by giving them the tools with which to speak out.

      “Some of the hard-core political people don’t always agree,” she begins, then pauses. “Well, no, I wouldn’t say that. It’s just that not everyone’s an artist. But, yeah, people just like to tell their stories. And the way the [Vancouver Moving Theatre] shows have been, since the beginning, is that they’re not really like professional theatre productions.

      “I mean, I’ve been in a bunch of shows where the script is kind of fluid,” she continues. “So if you’re there, rehearsing a scene, and you’re like, ”˜I would never say it like this,’ they’d say, ”˜Oh, okay, how would you say it?’ So you sort of get to rewrite the show to truly reflect your experience.”

      We Are the People artistic director Walling’s methods might be unorthodox, but lacking professionalism is not a charge that can be levelled at this show. In fact, one of the things that attract DTES community members to VMT’s productions is that they allow amateur or semiprofessional talent to bond with seasoned pros.

      That’s a big plus for singer Michelle A. Richard, who does double duty as Vancouver Moving Theatre’s office administrator. Working with Walling, music director Neil Weisensel, and composer Earle Peach, among others, has given her the kind of confidence and creativity that she would never have found singing jazz standards in restaurants.

      “In a production like this, where there’s so many different kinds of material and there’s some acting involved, you really get to grow as an artist,” the New Brunswick–born musician notes. “I see a lot of confidence, people really growing confident—and that’s really great to see.”

      With songs that address homelessness, addiction, and prostitution, We Are the People does not attempt to gloss over the challenges that the residents of the Downtown Eastside face every day—but it’s a sure sign that hope can flourish in what’s often considered a very dark environment.

      We Are the People runs at the Ukrainian Hall from next Thursday to Sunday (April 7 to 10).