By: Hafsa Sakhi

Just off of King Street East on Steven Street lies the Pearl Company, one of Hamilton’s premier performance centres. Run by musician and artist Gary Santucci and arts activist Barbara Milne, the company is in the midst of their latest production, Here’s Johnny, a tale that explores the lives of locals facing poverty, addiction and trauma.

Santucci was inspired to use the play as reflection on his life in Hamilton, and the theatres surrounding neighborhood on Steven Street.

Here’s Johnny came from our time here, living and working and running the Pearl Company, so the inspiration or the trigger was initially the environment around us, the feel of living here, and many social issues that crop up in living and working in a sacrifice zone,” said Santucci.

A sacrifice zone is a neighbourhood which has been left with permanent environmental damage or economic downturn, often marked after the departure of large local industries.

“A lot of things are here where they’re not really tolerated elsewhere… there’s a whole diverse situation of community to many wounded people who need help and services,” explained Santucci.

“The majority of what is portrayed in the play is derived from reality, things that have happened. Bob, the main character… represents a composite of me and my interaction on the street… that idea of me sweeping the streets and being out there and looking after our neighbourhood. [Then there’s] the older street [sex worker], the survivor.”

Actress Robin Zee plays the older sex worker Ginger, and a real-life survivor of human trafficking and street prostitution. Santucci says Zee was a catalyst for the play to finally be shown, after eight years in the making.

“Getting to know her and her experience helped me validate my assumptions… so I could write in that perspective, not simply from an older white guy’s point of view, but it was validated by someone who had gone through everything and come out the other side intact.”

The process of writing Here’s Johnny was cathartic for Santucci, as he and Milne face their 12th year on Steven Street, along with the possibility of moving the company in the future.

“We’re booked up till next year, the end of next year, and then maybe more, even longer… but from the perspective of telling [the story of Here’s Johnny], Barbara being there, through our experiencing it, that’s our shared story in a way. All the protagonists and characters on the street, that’s their story too,” said Santucci.

“[Currently, today] is the most creative time in my life, really, I’ve been challenged… had issues with our city government, with regards to zoning, with our building. We’ve had to fight for our own existence and operate and do this beautiful stuff we do here, have live concerts, live theatre, which contravened a bylaw, so we’ve fought that to stalemate in the courts. Half my waking time was fighting government, half was creating beautiful things, and I always try to balance the two and always have the beautiful things at least add a little more weight.”

Santucci hopes his play will stimulate people’s questions and thinking around certain issues, from street prostitution to drug abuse, violence, and homelessness.

“Our role as artists is to really reflect the truth about what we see… it in some artful way that people can relate to it in a specific manner that’s not threatening, that’s not an argument… a play is not an argument, a play is a story, you listen and observe and then you reflect on it, so putting ideas forward… [a] lifelong pursuit of knowledge and education… this what I advocate.”

Here’s Johnny puts a face to a name, of the people which inhabit and work in low-income, high crime neighbourhoods. The message is clear: the vulnerable should not be ignored. 

Here’s Johnny will be performed at the Pearl Company Theatre October 25-28. Tickets are $25, and $20 for students and seniors.

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