Tracing identity through the sacrifices & dreams of matriarchal herstory in the moving, delightful, lyrical trace

Jeff Ho; set design by Nina Lee Aquino and Michelle Ramsay; lighting design by Michelle Ramsay—photo by Dahlia Katz

 

Factory Theatre, in association with b current performing arts, presents the world premiere of Jeff Ho’s trace, a multidisciplinary journey of family and identity, directed by Factory Theatre AD Nina Lee Aquino, assisted by Darrel Gamotin, and currently running in the Factory Studio space.

Written, performed and composed by Ho, trace is structured as a Piano Sonata, with Five Movements, plus a Prelude and a Coda. Featuring the three most influential women in his life, the storytelling weaves memories with family mythology and moments, travelling through time and across borders—taking family apart and reuniting them.

Starting in the present day, Jeff’s mother (Ma) Kwan Miu Chi (44 years old) returns home to Hong Kong with her eldest son, looking for a place to stay. She finds drastically different receptions from her grandmother (Jeff’s Great Grandma) Kwan Bo Siu (85 years old), who seems happy to see her, but proceeds to gruffly enlist her aid in ridding the apartment of rats; and mother (Jeff’s Grandma) Kwan Wei Foon (64 years old), who is decidedly chilly and resistant to having two more mouths to feed.

As the story shifts back and forth in time and place, we see the three women at various ages—and the world and circumstances that shaped them and their relationships with their children. As a young, single mother, Great Grandma Kwan Bo Siu fled the WWII Japanese invasion of China with her son to live in Hong Kong, where she faced new struggles to find work and survive. Grandma Kwan Wei Foon was 16 when she met her husband to be, receiving a scornful and cross introduction to his mother (Bo Siu); and subsequently garnering constant disapproval and always having to prove herself, and supporting her mother-in-law in her old age. And Jeff’s Ma Kwan Miu Chi, who left Hong Kong for Toronto in pursuit of a better life for herself and two young sons, was once refused tuition to go to school by her mother (Wei Foon). Finding support and commonality with her grandmother (Bo Siu)—who possessed mad skills and an ability to earn great sums at the mahjong table—she was able to pursue her education and chosen profession. And just as Wei Foon and Miu Chi battled over Mui Chi’s dream of becoming an accountant, the economically cautious, traditionally-minded Miu Chi goes on to butt heads with her youngest son Jeff, who eschews academics for the arts, especially the piano.

Ho, who gave us a lovely Ophelia in Why Not Theatre’s production of Prince Hamlet, does an equally beautiful job with these women, capturing their vulnerability, stubbornness—and ultimately determined strength as they ferociously carry on through tragedy and hard times. Charming, eloquent and a wonder on the keys, Ho shifts seamlessly between characters with precise body language and vocal qualities: the hard-talking, chain smoking mahjong Queen Great Grandma Kwan Bo Siu; the imperious, cold and distant Grandma Kwan Wei Foon; and the strict, practical, sharp negotiator Ma Kwan Miu Chi (who also inherited the maternal mahjong queen gene). Amidst the struggles for survival, family is of the utmost importance to these women. All are striving for a better life for themselves and their children—and keeping the line of caretaker from parent to child and back again intact.

The two pianos on stage play out the exquisitely beautiful, Piano Sonata-inspired framework of this story, composed by Ho—and stand in for the other characters the women encounter along the way. The Fifth Movement, played in the home key, is particularly heart-wrenching. During the talkback that followed the performance (hosted by Miquelon Rodriguez), Ho describes this as the most challenging aspect of performance: making the piano speak as a character so the interaction is as clear as possible.

trace is nicely bookended as we return to the present day. The revelations of family history, sacrifice and secret shame bring a painful sense of redemption and closure to the three generations of women—and the realization of why they are the way they are. For Ho, who combined fact, fiction and conjecture to create the piece, it is the story of the three women who made him who he is.

With shouts to Aquino and Michelle Ramsay for the elegant, multi-level platform set design; the black platforms with red legs evoking beautiful Chinese lacquer furniture.

Tracing identity through the sacrifices and dreams of matriarchal herstory in the moving, delightful, lyrical trace.

trace continues in the Factory Theatre Studio till December 3. Get your advance tickets online, by phone at 416-504-9971 or in-person at 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide St. W.).

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Sacred, profane & magical – blood variations & intimate, powerful storytelling in BloodClaat

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d’bi.young anitafrika as Mudgu in BloodClaat – photos by Dee Kofri

In celebration of the 10th anniversary of BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1, The Watah Theatre is remounting d’bi.young anitafrika’s award-winning Sankofa Trilogy, starting with a run of BloodClaat to open its 2016-17 Blk Bx Season [calendar link] at its home in Toronto’s Distillery District at 9 Trinity Street, Studio 317.

The Sankofa Trilogy takes us on the journey of three generations of remarkable Jamaican womxn,* starting with Mudgu Sankofa in BloodClaat, collectively directed, with the guidance and support of spiritual mentor Raven Dauda. A solo show inspired by anitafrika’s lived experience as an incest survivor, BloodClaat is part autobiography, part mythology as we follow 15-year-old Mudgu’s coming of age.

Mudgu lives with her grandmother while her mother prepares a new life for them in Canada. An active, precocious young woman who talks a mile a minute, she excels at net ball and adores her boyfriend Johnny. Navigating her grandmother’s strict house rules, her school and personal life, and a rough neighbourhood known for violence, she is also coming to terms with being a woman – and that means dealing with her monthly menstrual cycle and the power to create life (which her grandmother forbids her to do). Her world changes forever when she goes to live with her aunt and uncle for a while, and an act of violence in her grandmother’s neighbourhood ends in death.

Woven into Mudgu’s story are mythological tales and parables of strength and ritual; in particular, one of a warrior princess who gives a rallying cry to her people to rise up for freedom from their white plantation masters.

The theme of blood is the common thread: a womxn’s monthly blood, with the power of giving life and even healing; blood that’s shed in violence and in sacrifice; and the blood of goddess and ritual. And we see different perspectives and points of view on menstrual blood: shame, derision, celebration, creation and powerful magical properties.

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d’bi.young anitafrika in BloodClaat

Anitafrika is a profoundly compelling and engaging storyteller; and the staging in The Watah Theatre’s studio space makes for an extremely intimate, immersive experience. Throughout the story, the audience becomes Mudgu’s neighbours, her fellow bus passengers and the warrior princess’s people.

Told with humour, candor and emotional punch – incorporating voice, movement and posture, with very little in the way of costume changes – BloodClaat features sharply defined characters, exquisitely drawn by anitafrika. From the delightfully energetic and innocent Mudgu, to her sharp-tonged, strict grandmother and kind, gentle mother; her smooth talking boyfriend with swagger Johnny; her distracted, pious church lady aunt and deep-voiced, possessive uncle; the stuttering bus driver; and the fierce and inspiring warrior princess. We are rapt as we find ourselves alternating between being a fly on the wall and part of Mudgu’s story.

As is anitafrika’s custom, each performance is followed by a moment to catch your breath, and an opportunity to share comments and ask questions. When asked about BloodClaat and The Sankofa Trilogy, anitafrika described the generational through line and how she wanted to remount the work in a more intimate setting. As The Watah’s 2016-17 season experiments with a black box theatre experience, what happens when there is minimal production in a room filled with energy? Is it possible to move through a (r)evolution without resources? Confronted with limited funding and support, the stories still need to be told. Story moves us to change regardless. The houses have been small, but the impact has been huge; up close and personal, something magical happens in that space. And perhaps it is only in such an intimate space that storytelling medicine and healing – and profound, surprising growth – can happen.

An interesting divergence from the original production, noted by one audience member in her comment, was that there’s now a scene of Mudgu washing herself, her bed sheets and nightie. Bypassed for 10 years, anitafrika realized she’d been avoiding this reality of the story. Mudgu wakes up with menstrual leakage and needs to clean up. Of course she does! And in these moments, Mudgu must hold herself – and it’s become one of anitafrika’s favourite scenes.

Asked a more general question about what she says “No” to, anitafrika is mindful of corporate sponsorship. It’s important to know where your funding is coming from and who you’re potentially partnering with. Despite its seeming naiveté, anitafrika believes there must be a way to live your ethics and values – and that may mean revising your definition of success. It’s not about becoming rich and famous; it’s about living with purpose in service of your community. And while it’s not a new idea, “meaning leads to joy.”

With shouts to the creative team for their beautiful work on this production: Rachel Forbes (set and costumes), Andrenne Finnikin (ass’t set design) and Brett Haynes (lighting/producer).

Sacred, profane and magical. Blood variations and intimate, powerful storytelling in BloodClaat: The Sankofa Trilogy Part 1.

BloodClaat continues at The Watah Theatre’s space (9 Trinity Street, Studio 317) till Nov 20; it’s an intimate space and a truly compelling show, and you can get your tix in advance. Please note the 7:00 p.m. start time for evening performances.

The Sankofa Trilogy continues with Parts 2 and 3, with stories of Mudgu’s daughter Sekesu and granddaughter Benu in Benu (Feb 15-Mar 5, 2017) and Word! Sound! Powah! (April 5-28, 2017); this in addition to other productions scheduled for the 2016-17 season. All shows will be performed at The Watah Theatre’s home.

You can keep up with The Watah Theatre on Twitter and Facebook.

Please consider supporting this unique and important theatre company by donating to The Watah Theatre’s Go Fund Me campaign.

* This spelling of “woman” is the preference of the playwright.