The Ward Cabaret
Written by Marjorie Chan. Directed by David Buchbinder and Leah Cherniak. Until December 22 at the Harbourfront Centre Theatre, 231 Queens Quay West. HarbourfrontCentre.com or 416-973-4000.
Of everything it’s known for, Toronto’s greatest defining feature is likely its patchwork of neighbourhoods defined by the people who established them: Greektown, Chinatown East and West, Little India, Little Italy, Koreatown, Little Portugal, Little Poland.
But in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, Toronto had yet to build that identity as a cultural mosaic, and The Ward was Toronto’s first and only immigrant neighbourhood, putting all newcomers in close proximity of one another: south of College, north of Queen, west of Yonge and east of University.
That neighbourhood was torn down in the 1950s, but echoes remain—the Eaton Centre recalls the T. Eaton factory where immigrants worked long hours for low wages at a sewing machine, and Lawren Harris painted the area that was considered by Anglo-Torontonians to be a slum of disease and depravity. Now most of the Ward is called Toronto’s Discovery District, where city hall, box stores, condo towers and business complexes stand.
Trumpetist and producer David Buchbinder’s idea for “The Ward Cabaret” revives some of the sounds one would hear from The Ward in its heyday, and it reveals a much more complex display of life than was offered to The Ward during its existence.
After several workshop runs including an appearance at the 2018 Luminato Festival, “The Ward Cabaret” is making it official debut at the Harbourfront Centre in a production co-directed by Buchbinder and theatre maker Leah Cherniak, with a book written by Theatre Passe Muraille artistic director Marjorie Chan. Drawing from historical research and 2015’s “The Ward” by journalist John Lorinc, Buchbinder’s music is a curation of songs from the Italian, Eastern European Jewish, African American, and Chinese diaspora of the era.
The music is performed by a band including Buchbinder, Jacob Orzhaltsan, Michael Occhipinti, Cynthia Qin, and Louis Simao, and interwoven with short scenes or descriptions of Ward life from six singers: Aviva Chernick, Cara Krisman, Derek Kwan, Kaisha Lee, Mitch Smolkin and Jeremiah Sparks.
Sometimes these are inspired directly by real people from the Ward, like Joseph Shlisky, kidnapped from Poland as a child and plucked from the factory line by Lady Eaton for his singing voice to go on to musical exceptionalism. Most are general representations of everyday life, like a young couple who meet outside of the factory whom we track through marriage and childbirth.
The first half of the cabaret treats the music as unique interjections from the cast of characters, a piece of their homeland that they’re contributing to the group, including Krisman’s rousing Italian labour anthem “Avanti Popolo (Bandiera Rossa)” (arranged by Occhipinti) and Kwan’s Cantonese Opera ballad “Meeting at West River” (also arranged by Kwan).
But the second act begins to mesh the Ward’s cultural musical influences together in an exciting way. Blues songs mingle with Cantonese, Italian with Hebrew Klezmer. And we also learn about the larger role that the Ward played in Toronto’s culture, branching out of the bubble created in the first act. The Ward was where “Toronto the Good” went to let off steam; it was a concentrated location for speakeasies and brothels.
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One wishes that the energy of the second act was more prevalent in the first, offering a greater amount of historical detail that made the Ward a lesser-known but invaluable contribution to city life, and a snapshot of the kind of intercultural art that would make Toronto a world-renowned cultural producer.
But there’s no mistake that “The Ward Cabaret” is timely amid a new-found wave of anti-Semitic and anti-immigrant rhetoric, as a glowing rear-view mirror on the city’s first immigrant neighbourhood.
Perhaps it is too glowing at times; the institutionalized racism faced by these immigrants could be prodded further, and Toronto is made out to be a safe haven for escaped African American slaves, overlooking Canada’s own history with slavery. Still, “The Ward Cabaret” is worth a visit for historical education, as well as a musical treat.