AS PROTESTS GO, it was a small one, but it saved lives—and now it’s inspiring art.
With 14 original compositions performed live by CCEC member Bill Sample, directed by CCEC member Jay Hamburger and featuring ex Raymur resident protestor mom and CCEC member Carolyn Jerome.
The Raymur Mothers—They Wouldn’t Take No for an Answer
at the Russian Hall from Wednesday (October 29) to November 9.
Tickets online only $22/adult!
Actors Danielle St. Pierre and Karita Sedun flank the people whose story they’ll resurrect: (left to right) daughter Liisa Atva and mothers Barbara Burnet, Joan Morelli, Carolyn Jerome, and Muggs Sigurgeirson.
Back in 1971, the trek from East Vancouver’s Raymur Place housing project to Seymour Elementary was a short but dangerous one, involving the unsupervised crossing of a busy inner-city rail line. From her living-room window, Raymur resident Caroline Jerome could see neighbourhood children, including her own daughter, dodging locomotives and tank cars as they made their way to class. “At 8:30, the trains would jiggle around, back up, start again, jiggle some more, and then they’d stop,” Jerome recalls, interviewed by phone from Galiano Island, where she now lives. “And I would have to witness the kids standing there waiting for the train to move—or some of them, being bolder, when they’d hear that buzzer go they would climb through the train sections to get to school.”
It was an accident waiting to happen, but it wasn’t going to happen on Jerome’s watch. After repeated phone calls and a letter-writing campaign failed to prompt a response from city hall or the two railroad companies using the tracks, she’d had enough. Along with a small group of other mothers, she decided that the only way to make their point was to shut down rail access to the Port of Vancouver. While working-class moms could be ignored, she reasoned, business is business.
“The first time we went out [to physically block the tracks], we linked arms to stop that train,” she says. “And what I remember when I think back on that first morning is the feel of the train o
n the ground as it came towards us. We had to stand our ground and stay there and hope this train was going to stop—and it did stop. We felt very empowered when we saw that we could actually do this.”
After three more blockades, the railroad companies won a court injunction to keep the mothers off the tracks, but they also adjusted their schedule to allow for safer school-day crossings, and in time a pedestrian overpass was built. Direct action had won the day.
The story of the mothers’ struggle for safety has recently been revived in both online and musical-theatre form. To see historic footage of Jerome and company, visit blackstrathcona.com/#militant-mothers. And now Theatre in the Raw is launching The Raymur Mothers—They Wouldn’t Take No for an Answer as part of the Downtown Eastside’s annual Heart of the City festival.
The new piece joins Bruce—The Musical, which celebrates the life of community activist Bruce Eriksen, and Yippies in Love, a politically charged flashback to the Age of Aquarius, in th
e activist theatre
group’s “Untold Stories of Vancouver” series. Like those earlier pieces, The Raymur Mothers draws on the talents of director Jay Hamburger, composer Bill Sample, and playwright Bob Sarti, collaborators for more than a decade. Their chemistry is remarkable, although not always easy: in a separate telephone interview, Hamburger talks about having to shrink the show from its original three-hour running time—“Bob’s a stickler for detail,” he notes wryly—and describes how numbers like “Hell No” and “Direct Action” have been developed.
“What happens is Bob gives Bill an idea by saying, ‘
Well, look, why don’t we do this in the style of Bobby Darin, or the Beatles, or Frank Zappa,’ ” the director explains. “And then Bill takes that, with the lyrics, and is inspired to write a song. Bob turns out the lyrics, and sometimes they have to be modified in a very minor way, to fit the rhythm and the tone and the tempo of Bill’s music.”
(Unfortunately, Sarti suffered a stroke on September 27 and is recovering in hospital, so will miss the opening of a project he’s been dedicated to for the past several years.)
Hamburger adds that in the interest of theatricality, a relationship-oriented subplot runs parallel to the story of the protest. Jerome isn’t entirely sure about that development, although she recognizes that The Raymur Mothers has to be entertaining as well as educational. “It’s really generous of them to take the time to put this into the history of Strathcona,” she notes, before adding that she’s especially happy that the show’s message is clear.
“If something’s wrong,” she says, “you’ve just got to stand up.”