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The Ward-Cabaret
John Lorinc | April 23, 2018

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From Issue No. 268 | April 23, 2018

For well over a century, St. John’s Ward, a.k.a., “The Ward,” was a working-class enclave in downtown Toronto, situated between Yonge and University, Queen and College. From the 1840s to the 1950s, this community became synonymous with immigration, poverty, vice and squalor. It saw waves of newcomers – African-Americans, Irish, Italians, Eastern European Jews and finally Chinese – settled in dense and often run-down neighbourhoods that city officials saw as crime-ridden slums in need of reform.

Yet The Ward was much more than its visible poverty and presumed vice. The newcomers who settled there started businesses, built religious institutions, learned English, hawked newspapers, and attended local theatres. They also made music that evoked their homelands and the journeys they brought them to Toronto.

The Ward Cabaret, conceived by the Juno Award-winning musician David Buchbinder, is a lively and inspiring performance of music that was either performed or composed in The Ward in the late 19th or early 20th centuries. The songs draw on the traditions of the ethno-cultural groups that lived in the Ward’s crowded streets – African American, Italian, Jewish and Chinese.

Led by Buchbinder, who serves as the artistic director and producer, and featuring performances by his creative collaborators Michael Occhipinti and Andrew Craig, The Ward Cabaret is a 90-minute collection of songs about emigration, love, struggle and traditions lost or renewed. Between musical numbers, playwright Marjorie Chan, artistic director at Cahoots Theatre, has written vignettes based on the lives of Ward residents – stories that express the hardships and determination of Toronto’s earliest immigrants. The performances will be directed by Leah Cherniak, a resident artist and associate director of the Soulpepper Academy.

Earlier versions of the show were performed in 2016 and 2017 to sold-out houses at Soulpepper/Young Centre for the Performing Arts and Lula Lounge (check out a short video about that show here). Later this spring, the next iteration, which for the first time includes Chan’s script and actors, will be performed over three nights at the Berkeley Street Theatre, from June 20 to 22. Tickets for the shows are available through Luminato, and can be purchased here.

The show has been made possible with support from Luminato as well as through fundraising. Donations are eligible for a charitable tax receipt and will be administered by Diasporic Genius, a project of Tides Canada and David Buchbinder. To donate, please visit the Tides/DG website here.  

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