This play teaches kids about a Toronto race riot – where it happened

Perched beside a city park baseball diamond on a sunny day this week, a group of Toronto teenagers learned a living lesson in a Canadian history that remains unknown to many.

A live performance transported them to Depression-era Toronto, when the explosion of anti-Semitism and anti-immigrant sentiment in the city paralleled the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany – which finally erupted in the Christie Pits Riot, one of the largest race riots in the nation’s history.

Watching artists portray the time – when swastika-wielding provocateurs and skyrocketing racial tensions sparked a brawl involving more than 10,000 people in the downtown park – really brought history to life for the audience. 8th grade student Hanah Isse.

“It’s much more effective because it’s easier to understand when you see it right in front of you,” the 14-year-old said.

Show on site more “impactful”

New production, Christie Pits Riot, coincides with the 90th anniversary of the riot. It was a personal effort for Sam Rosenthal, who co-wrote, co-produced and directed the show, co-created by his Hogtown Collective partner Drew Carnwath.

At the time of the riot, which broke out during a baseball game in which one team was predominantly Jewish, Rosenthal’s grandfather was tending to his store down the street. His father grew up a few blocks from the park.

WATCH | Christie Pits Riot offers students an on-site history lesson:

New Play Explores Rise of Anti-Semitism in 1930s Toronto

The Christie Pits Riot delves into the rise of anti-Semitism and the struggle between immigrant communities and swastika-wearing racists in 1930s Toronto.

“It’s my family’s story,” he said. “My father and my grandfather, it’s their neighborhood, so it touches me deeply.”

For others, Carnwath says the immersive, site-specific approach helps the story resonate on a more personal and emotional level.

“It’s one thing to sit in a dark room and watch a room like you’re watching a movie, but when the actors are as close to the audience as I am to you right now, you can literally back each other up. shoulder and feel what they feel,” Carnwath said.

“It’s just more impactful.” The couple hope to attract the general public to the show and perhaps visit it.

Watching the production left a strong impression on 13-year-old student Chloe Douglas.

“I didn’t know anything about what happened in Toronto. Honestly, I thought it was just Germany,” she said.

Three smiling teenagers stand against a metal fence around an outdoor baseball field in a city park.
From left to right, Chloe Douglas, Hanah Isse and Ron Sanchez were among the Toronto students who attended the show. (Nazima Walji/CBC)

“Very relevant in 2023”

Whether it’s a play, graphic novel, podcasts, film or any other medium, Jamie Michaels believes the 1933 riot is not just the story of Toronto is something everyone should learn.

The English Literature PhD student didn’t hear about the Christie Pits riot until after he finished his undergraduate studies, but the story both rocked and inspired him to create a graphic novel at this subject.

“I am a young Canadian Jew. I had similar experiences in a similar sporting context and this, I felt, was shocking. How could this be a new story for me?” said Michaels, who is a professor at the University of Calgary and a doctoral candidate.

He remembers growing up in Winnipeg and, in eighth grade, attending a baseball tournament where, at one point, students from a rival school began spouting anti-Semitic slurs. This eventually caused a fight in the crowd.

With his graphic novel Christie PitsMichaels calls on Canadians “to view this hatred as part of a continuum that we are still struggling with… This is certainly a book that unpacks the events of 1933, but it is a book that is very relevant to 2023” , did he declare. .

A man in a blue checkered shirt stands in a park next to a smiling man wearing a black turtleneck sweater.
Sam Rosenthal, right, and Drew Carnwath co-created the play Christie Pits Riot. Their Toronto theater group will be performing for more students in May and June. (Nazima Walji/CBC)

The riot broke out in a “Canada that had intolerance as a primary value and I think sharing this story and understanding this story allows us to learn from it – and allows us to fight against this same rise of intolerance that we see today”.

Hate “can affect us all”

The students watching Christie Pits Riot this week were joined by prominent adults.

“We need to learn from our history so we don’t have to repeat it,” said Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce, whose government is introducing mandatory Holocaust learning into the 6th grade curriculum. year and has invested in community groups creating educational resources. to fight anti-Semitism.

“We have to be very vigilant in the fight against hate. And yes, it’s not just against the Jewish community. We see hate being manifested against so many faiths and religious communities and others, including the LGBTQ,” he said.

“When it starts with a group, as we know through history, it can ripple through all of us.”

Retired Senator Linda Frum said Canadians must not “pass over difficult chapters in our history…Hate and intolerance is something that happens here, just as it happens elsewhere.

Two actors wearing newsboy caps, button down shirts and baggy belted pants chat while performing outdoors in a city park.
“It’s one thing to sit in a dark room and watch a play,” Carnwath said. But with an immersive show, “you can literally stand side by side and feel what they’re feeling.” (Nazima Walji/CBC)

Yet Frum, who chairs the Anti-Semitism and Hate Committee at the Toronto United Jewish Appeal, also pointed to another key part of the Christie Pits story: that members of the Jewish community and the Italian community rallied against the Nazi-inspired mob that had antagonized Jewish baseball players.

“There is a larger lesson here about solidarity between communities and standing up for other communities,” she said.

A man in glasses and a navy blue button-up shirt bends over publication proofs on a drafting table, scribbling notes in the margin.
Jamie Michaels was shocked when he learned of the riot and was inspired to create a graphic novel about it. (Submitted by Jamie Michaels)

This point was not lost on 14-year-old Ron Sanchez, who said he learned “valuable lessons” about tolerance, kindness and alliance performance Hogtown Collective.

“Italians and Jews have stood up for racism throughout, even though they knew they could hurt each other. I think it should happen more often,” the 8th grader said.

“People care about each other and neither [judging] people about their religion or things they believe in. »

Toronto students can see Christie Pits Riot until May and June.

A pair of graphic novel panels show, on the left, a Toronto Star newspaper with
Michaels says his graphic novel “unpacks the events of 1933, but it’s a book that’s very relevant to 2023.” (Submitted by Jamie Michaels)

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