Who do they think I am… Jim Pattison?
Bah! Humbug! is A Christmas Carol with sass
Bah! Humbug! is a twist on Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, drawing parallels between the squalor of Victorian London and Vancouver’s modern-day Downtown Eastside. This is the 5th annual year of Bah! Humbug!, with proceeds supporting Heart of the City Festival. Every year the play is updated to accurately reflect social issues. It incorporates specific shelters and detox facilities, and DTES-related news headlines from the previous year. While the performance is described as an unconventional reimagining of A Christmas Carol with a variety of music genres, the press release promises traditional festive music. Cringing at the thought of a premature Christmas extravaganza, I show up at Bah! Humbug! suspicious. The complimentary hot chocolate in the lobby cannot warm me up to the idea of sitting through classic holiday sing-along songs. I nestle into my seat, and my suspicion is quickly resolved by the loud cawing of a raven.
Bah! Humbug! opens with a man polishing an ornate carved cane. The caricature of a raven is projected on the wall behind him, illuminating the soft silhouettes of performers sitting at music stands. A narrator introduces the play. Captivated by visuals, all I hear is “Our ancestors’ ghosts fill the house.”
The first exchange of dialogue is oddly familiar. The man attempts to sell his cane on the street, asking as low as $2, and eventually giving it to a young man for a bus pass. The performers chant Buffy Sainte-Marie – “Little wheel spin and spin, big wheel turn around and around…” – over and over, encapsulating the cyclical nature of real-life scenes like these. As the lights dim, the cane is left on a stand at the front of the stage, acting as a totem during the rest of the performance.
Ebenezer Scrooge (played by the Canadian music legend, Jim Byrnes) owns a pawn shop on East Hastings. The audience is introduced to Scrooge shooing away street carollers. He plunges into a rant about this country’s money-grabbing crooks, “all except our dear, darling Christie Clark,” which merits slightly overzealous cackles from the audience. “Who do they think I am… Jim Pattison?” An aid worker requests donations to support the neighbourhood homeless. Scrooge makes the case, as so many others do, “I pay taxes to support these shelters and that’s enough!”
Sporadically throughout the performance, the paintings and prints on the screen come alive through animation. The artwork is created by Strathcona artist, Richard Tetrault. His illustrations are based off his experiences living and working in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, and witnessing the changing demographic. They show alleyways, dumpsters, cranes and trains. Tetrault’s art for Bah! Humbug! represents 20 years of drawing, printing and painting. It is an essential component of the performance, bringing colour to the neutral and minimalist set design.
The first ghost to visit Scrooge is his old partner Jacob Marley, shuffling to the centre of the stage with loud groans. While his chains are represented with rope, Scrooge describes them as a tangle of cellphones, keys and computers. Marley warns Scrooge that he will be visited by three more ghosts.
When the Ghost of Christmases Past appears to Scrooge, they are accompanied by a chorus of Christmas music from the top balcony of the theatre. The singers are members of the Saint James Music Academy Youth Choir under the direction of Choir Director Jill Samycia and Assistant Choir Conductor Mercy Walker. Although dressed in contemporary street clothing, the choir is the most traditional element of Bah! Humbug!. Their song selections are seasonal and festive, and beautifully performed.
The Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge to his childhood as a boy scrubbing floors over the holidays, unable to complain. The projected imagery flashes from the Vancouver cargo docks, to a raven, to the streets of Chinatown. The song, “Sorry Seems to be the Hardest Word” segways into a woman breaking up with Scrooge because of his fixation on money. Scrooge sings “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails, adopting Johnny Cash’s more forlorn blues version. After much begging, the Ghost of Christmas Past takes Scrooge home.
The next ghost is that of Christmases Present. They arrive in a long, shaggy jacket of leaves and shells. The feast surrounding the ghost is described as having lichen, salmonberries, cedar, buckets of oysters, smoked salmon, sweet grass, seaweed, bannock, and sushi. They take Scrooge to the home of Bob Cratchit. Tiny Tim is on Cratchit’s shoulder, represented by the cane. Cratchit’s wife begins a rant about Scrooge’s lack of generosity, explaining that nobody can survive in Vancouver on minimum wage. From there, Scrooge and The Ghost of Christmas Present fly across the Salish Sea and visit hospices, jails, In-Site, St. Paul’s Hospital and Canuck Place to the song, “Dust in the Wind.” Scrooge describes the ghost aging suddenly and from their long coat appears two shrivelled children represented with eerie cloth face masks. The boy child is Ignorance and the girl child is Want. Abandoned, the children are forced to live on the streets.
The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is the scariest one, silent and hooded. They take Scrooge to the reopened Woodward’s building. Two posh business men with iPhones discuss the death of a greedy business man. Just a couple blocks over at Main and Hastings, people are being evicted from an SRO hotel for redevelopment. They chant in chorus, “You know it ain’t no heaven cuz it’s next door to hell.” Their landlord has just died. Jumping to the Cratchit house, Scrooge and the ghost witness Bob Cratchit arriving home dismayed having looked in Oppenheimer Park for Tiny Tim. Once again begging to go home, the ghost takes Scrooge back to his bedroom.
Scrooge awakes Christmas morning reformed and committed to changing his future. He gets a boy to run to Save On Meats to purchase a free range organic gluten-free turkey for the Cratchits, and offers a shocked Bob Cratchit a raise. Scrooge encounters the aid worker from the day before and offers to help the neighbourhood grow. The raven imagery reappears, and the performers break into “Happy Xmas (War is Over).” Some audience members join the singing. The finale is “Shalom Chaverim,” accompanied by the beat of a traditional First Nations drum. The performers exit the stage in single file and the house lights come on.
SFU Woodward’s is developing a reputation for creating dialogue between academics, artists, the Greater Vancouver community and citizens of the Downtown Eastside. Many contributors to Bah! Humbug! and Heart of the City Festival live or work in neighbourhood shelters. Whereas many institutions and developers working in and around East Hastings have a tendency to ignore the social ramifications of redevelopment and gentrification, SFU Woodward’s is making a conscious effort through their programming to discuss topics of displacement. I may even go so far as to say they are using their power for good.
Bah! Humbug! is performed nightly Dec 11-13 & 16-20 at 7:30pm. Saturday matinée performances Dec 13 & 20 at 2pm. It takes place in the Fei & Milton Wong Experimental Theatre. Tickets can be purchased in advance at sfuwoodwards.ca or at the SFU Woodward’s Box Office one hour before showtime.
Brit is Editor-In-Chief at Discorder Magazine, Community Engagement Coordinator at VIVO Media Arts Centre, and frequent contributor to Vandocument. When she isn't writing or sneaking into studios, Brit draws.