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Kate Watson explores how Anthony Sherwood’s and Jeremy Webb’s plays about the Titanic educate, enlighten and memorialize.

Titanic: The Fated Voyage aims for sensitive, not cheesy. - TIMOTHY RICHARD
Titanic: The Fated Voyage aims for sensitive, not cheesy.

The word "celebrate" is most often used for happy occasions, but it can also mean "to observe with dignity."

This April, Halifax is playing host to events celebrating and commemorating the 100th anniversary of the sinking of the Titanic, including two plays, Titanic: The Untold Story and Titanic: The Fated Voyage. Though these productions differ greatly in the manner in which they tell the story of the tragedy, both aim to entertain and educate in a way that recognizes the solemnity of the occasion.

Anthony Sherwood, writer and director of Titanic: The Untold Story which just finished its run at the Alderney Landing Theatre, discovered the bones of the story of Haitian-born Joseph Laroche--- the only black man aboard Titanic---on the internet about a year ago. The story piqued his interest so much that he made use of his wife's family connections in Haiti to further his research. There, a series of letters that Laroche's French-born wife had written to her mother-in-law were discovered.

The letters revealed much about the racism Laroche endured on the Titanic as well as in his professional life as an engineer. In the play, Sherwood was able to weave together actual scenes described in the letters with historical accounts of the sinking to create a picture of Laroche's last hours.

The structure of the play brings Laroche face-to-face with Jack Johnson, the first black heavyweight champion of the world, rumored to have been denied passage on Titanic because of his colour. The two men are from different worlds. "There's a real clash of philosophies between Laroche and Johnson," says Sherwood. "I thought it was important to give Laroche someone to tell his story to, so that he would have the chance to ultimately realize that in some ways his story was like everyone else's. It wasn't just about class or colour. The tragedy affected everyone on board."  

The play is continuing its tour across North America and to Europe. But Sherwood felt Halifax was a logical choice for the world premiere: "Nova Scotia has such a close relationship with Titanic. It was a no-brainer."

Titanic: The Fated Voyage has the added challenge of dramatizing the tragedy within the framework of dinner theatre---a medium generally known as humourous.

"I think we've been really successful in creating a piece of entertainment about a huge tragedy that is both respectful and historically accurate," says the show's director, Jeremy Webb. "It's not all dark, but there are certainly no cheesy jokes. There's music, but it's all appropriate to the era."

The play begins with the sinking of the Titanic, and then uses flashbacks to tell the stories of various characters aboard the ship. The actors also remain in character during the meal portions of the evening.

Webb feels it's important that Halifax does its part to commemorate the event, and says the box office has been fielding calls from all over the world. "Enough time has passed so that the sinking has become an historical event that should be remembered. And since Halifax had an important part to play in it 100 years ago, it would be bizarre if we didn't take part in the commemoration now."

The Fated Voyage production was written with sensitivity, in order to walk the tricky line that exists between the actual tragic event and an evening's entertainment.

"People arrive not sure what to expect," says Webb. "But they leave knowing much more about the Titanic experience."

Titanic: The Fated Voyage, To April 26 at Cunard Event Centre, Pier 23, 961 Marginal Road, 7pm, $45-$100

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