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Singing his praises

Bruce: The Musical celebrates Downtown Eastside activist


How do you pay tribute to the man who gave a voice (and a loud one at that) to Vancouver’s most disenfranchised neighbourhood?

Playwright Bob Sarti poses with an image of the late Bruce Erikson
Playwright Bob Sarti poses with an image of the late Bruce Erikson

Some visit Bruce Erikson Place—a social housing project on Hastings Street erected in his honour. Others have joined the Downtown Eastside Residents’ Association—a charitable community organization Erikson founded in 1973.

But former Vancouver Sun reporter and long-time Downtown Eastside resident Bob Sarti had something different in mind when he wrote Bruce: The Musical. With the help of award-winning composers Bill Sample and Earle Peach, Erikson’s legacy has now been warmly commemorated in a two-act musical drama.

Bruce: The Musical premiered on Thursday Nov. 6 at Russian Hall, and plays every night until Nov. 16. The theatrical production brings to life many moments of Erikson’s remarkable biography. Complete with singing, dancing, and even a couple of Single Room Occupancy (SRO) hotel cockroaches, the play is an enjoyable, albeit cheesy way to get acquainted with the Downtown Eastside’s colourful history.

Erikson, played by Steve Maddock, was one of the neighbourhood’s most vocal activists. In fact, Erikson is the man responsible for the Downtown Eastside’s namesake (before it was just Skid Road).

“The way beer was pushed on people—he stopped that,” explains Sarti. Eastside beer parlours in the 1970s were notorious for overselling and taking advantage of alcoholics. Despite bylaws permitting only two glasses of beer per person, tables were often packed with enough pints to empty anyone’s pockets.

And that’s not all. Through a series of emotional scenes, the play shows how Erikson saved lives by campaigning for sprinklers in the neighbourhood’s aging hotels. “Before Bruce there were five or ten people dying in fires every year,” Sarti says. Erikson “raised hell” at city council meetings and in the press, causing the city to finally upgrade the hotels.

But Erikson isn’t the only character with a booming voice and an attitude. Libby Davies (played by Danielle St. Pierre) and Jean Swanson (Anna Kuman) expertly sing Erikson’s praises while a reporter (Mikal Grant) narrates the tender tale. The cast features a range of experience, drawing talent from productions of Cats, Jesus Christ Superstar, Seussical and A Chorus Line.

The play concludes with one of Erikson’s most renowned accomplishments: the reopening of the Carnegie Community Centre. “The Carnegie is so important to the community now, “Sarti says. “It really is the neighbourhood’s living room.”

It seems strange but oddly fitting that a man of such grit and personality is immortalized in a series of choreographed musical numbers. For Sarti, this means getting across a political message in the most palatable way possible. “It’s about making the issues accessible to everyone,” he explains. “I wanted to communicate all this stuff without it being a lesson.”

Although Erikson passed away in 1997, the lessons of his struggle have not been forgotten. “It’s important to remind people,” says Sarti. “So many people don’t know the history.”

Sarti says the play comes at an important time, when gentrification is beginning to unravel the hard work activists like Erikson have fought long and hard to achieve.

“I’m sorry to be negative but I see disaster for the neighbourhood,” Sarti says about the influx of new developments in the Downtown Eastside. “The majority is condos, which will bring a flood of new people that don’t have any understanding or sympathy for the people and issues of the area.”

With developments such as Woodward’s increasing property value in the neighbourhood, Sarti worries about current residents in the Downtown Eastside being displaced.

“City councilors don’t see it as a viable community. They think the only way to improve the area is to bring in new people and mix them in,” he says. “Now people have to worry about their homes being turned into tourist accommodation.”

Sarti hopes Erikson’s story will inspire a new generation of activists.

Tickets for Bruce: The Musical are $15 for general admission, $10 for students and seniors and $5 for the underemployed.

Published November 2008.

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