My Piece of the City: creating a musical to bridge the divisions of gentrification - Drew Rowsome - Moving Pictures _ MyGayToronto

My Piece of the City: creating a musical to bridge the divisions of gentrification

REVIEW by Drew Rowsome

11 November 2017

The documentary My Piece of the City is actually two films, a mash-up, rolled into one. The main storyline follows the rehearsals for the musical for The Journey, a salute to the Regent Park that is being gentrified into a new existence. The secondary storyline questions the gentrification and digs into the successes and failures of the massive urban renewal project that is still underway.

The rehearsal segments follow the Fame/reality television talent contest formula of backstage drama—the blood, sweat and tears—interspersed with dramatic back stories and dreams, and glossy music video versions of the finished product. Fortunately the performers are compelling and talented as well as articulate. And much of the drama comes from the culture clash of theatre meeting social work, those tasked with putting the show together are woefully unprepared for dealing with the lives and experiences of the cast.

As The Journey's director says of the process of putting on a show, "It's a lot of fucking work." People arrive late for rehearsal, refuse to rehearse dance steps, and are not always as engaged as professionalism demands. One of the more intriguing back stories involves a performer with dreams of becoming a music producer. He is an astounding singer and has presence to burn, and his back story is one that American Idol would kill for. But for some reason he doesn't turn up for the performance and we are casually informed that his understudy took his place. It is heartbreaking.

There is a major conflict between the director and another of the performers who doesn't take direction well. Fortunately grande dame Jackie Richardson, who is a force of nature in whatever she appears in, steps in and stops the "disrespect." No-one messes with Jackie Richardson or sabotages a show she is in. Richardson also serves as a bridge between the two storylines. She describes her own history with Regent Park, telling of the time she participated in the battle to get a community centre built. And now that several community centres are built, she wonders just what battles are next.

Regent Park was built in the 1940s as a social housing project. It rapidly became rundown and, as the performers express sadly, gained a reputation as a dangerous place. They talk about being "a city within a city," isolated, a place where "no-one came in or came out." One performer tells of being unable to order a pizza as no-one would deliver to Regent Park. But at the same time, it was their home. At least until the revitalization began and the aging buildings met the wrecking balls and were replaced with gleaming glass towers. The concept, the success of which is still debatable, was that the sales of market value condos would supplement the expense of public housing.

The performers tour around the construction zones and describe what Regent Park was and their skepticism about what it is becoming. There is a lot of nostalgia for a vague notion of "community." And there is much envy of the expensive cars that the new denizens tool around in. One performer talks explicitly about racism, which has to be acknowledged as a crucial element in Regent Park's problems, and when she puts that bitterness into song as well as words, My Piece of the City soars.

Another performer puzzles that Cabbagetown, which she points out is right across the street, is full of historically protected buildings. Yet the Regent Park tenements are blithely bulldozed and she wonders why her "history is not good enough to keep." It may not be a romantic history like that lathered on the Cabbagetown mansions, but it is a part of the history of the city, a history many would prefer forgotten. My Piece of the City director Moze Mossanen, tries to show how the divisions are a product of class and race divisions, but he isn't able—will anyone be able?—to present a solution or a catharsis to equal the uplifting, and patently false, musical numbers.

Towards the end, the film crew and the performers encounter an old school resident. He clutches a bottle and expounds on the good work they are doing and how great Regent Park used to be. He then beams for the camera, proud of his performance despite the performers' being utterly non-plussed, and wants to know when he can see himself on television. The parallels are painful but a necessary provocation. My Piece of the City uses musical numbers, as apparently does The Journey, as sugar to disguise the bitter realities. But it is the voices, spoken and sung, of the cast that resonate and initiate a conversation that we should have had long ago. And should be having now.

My Piece of the City premieres as part of the 15th Annual Regent Park Film Festival on Sat, Nov 18 at Daniels Spectrum's Ada Slaight Hall, 585 Dundas St E.