Janet Michael is inviting you to a party — an unforgettable, all-night house party down on New Gower Street, with the Bashas and the Dominics and the Gosines and Alteens.
You might recognize some of the family names as fairly common around here. They’re names from the Lebanese community, which started here during the 1800s and early 1900s.
“When people started coming in the 1860s, they were coming from the Middle East to Newfoundland and this was an easy place to get to. At that time, right up until the 1920s, there was no immigration law in Newfoundland,” Michael says. “Many people at that time were looking for a better standard of living. They were looking for economic opportunity and like many other cultures of that time from all over the world, they travelled the world to find that.
“You could get into Newfoundland very easily, you didn’t need to go through any immigration process, you just had to show up with $50 for a peddler’s licence and you were off. As long as you could afford a pack sack and to buy some good, you could go on the coastal boats and travel through all the outports of Newfoundland and make money selling goods to housewives and fishermen. When you’d get enough money, you’d buy a little store downtown, and when you made enough money on the store, you’d buy a house, and so forth.”
Michael is half Lebanese herself: her paternal grandfather came to St. John’s from Lebanon in 1909 with his two brothers, and her maternal grandparents came from Heart’s Content. Michael grew up in St. John’s on Lemarchant Road, just a skip and a jump from her grandparents’ place on New Gower Street, in the heart of the Lebanese community. The area was eventually razed for the construction of City Hall.
A longtime performer, Michael has been living in B.C. since the mid-80s, but gets back to St. John’s at least once a year. She’s here now for the premiere of her play, “Habib’s Unforgettable All-Night House Party,’ which is running at the LSPU Hall Feb. 3 to 14.
With humour, music and dance, the play is inspired by Michael’s Lebanese roots, and tells the story of a family preparing to celebrate their parents’ wedding anniversary with a house party on New Gower Street.
“I’m drawing on the stories and memories of all the people that I grew up with,” Michael says. “When I was quite a little thing I would go down into that community and I just went from house to house to house and it was fabulous. People were extremely welcoming and very close and I have really fond memories of that.”
The play began, Michael said, as a documentary, before she eventually decided to turn it into a theatre piece. Having worked in theatre in St. John’s with the Mummers Troupe, Rising Tide and the Resource Centre for the Arts before moving away, its the medium she understands best, she explains.
The play has been in development in B.C. for four years, and Michael says the casting process was particularly arduous.
“It was very challenging because we had to find Middle Eastern-looking Newfoundlanders who could sing and dance and be funny and play instruments, so it was a tall order, but I think it’s went really well.”
The play stars Andy Jones, Clint Butler, Maria Vacratsis, Dalal Badr, Lise Cormier, Chirag Naik, Adam Olgui, and Craig Pike, and is directed by Dean Paul Gibson. In March, the production will move to Kamloops, B.C. for a two-week run.
Michael wants audiences to leave the show entertained, but also enlightened.
“I want them to understand, and I want Canadians to understand, including Newfoundlanders, that our country is made up of people of hundreds of different origins. Those people sometimes go through difficult times because there’s colour discrimination in this country, there’s no two ways about it.
“People have to be reminded that everyone can make valuable contributions to society. We have all these people coming from Syria — these are smart, talented people who are going to make incredible contributions to this country and people have to keep that in mind.
Tickets for “Habib’s Unforgettable All-Night House Party” are available at the LSPU Hall box office, by calling 753-4531, and online at www.rca.nf.ca.