“Loyalty, Musicality, Family and Leaving Home” In Conversation with Jeff Ho, creator and performer of “trace” at Factory Theatre
Interview by Bailey Green.
We spoke with Jeff Ho about his play trace, opening at Factory Theatre on November 16th (in association with b current performing arts). trace follows Ho’s own bloodline and lineage, from his great-grandmother, to his mother, to himself. The audience travels along with the journeys his family chose, or were forced to choose, over the course of their lifetimes. This two piano, one man chamber play spans decades and continents. Ho is the composer, writer and performer of the play. We spoke with Ho about loyalty, musicality, family and leaving home.
(Interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
Bailey Green: Can you tell me what sparked the desire to create trace?
Jeff Ho: I started writing trace when I was still at school at the National Theatre School. During second year, we have a component where we write our own solo show. I worked with Yael Farber, and she often says “What do your ancestors demand you speak?” and in my family we have this secret: My great grandma, she had my grandpa but she also had another son, and during World War 2 she had to make, well essentially, a “Sophie’s Choice” and she had to leave a son, my great-uncle, behind. From that deep guilt and shame, she never spoke of him. I did a lot of archaeological digging, looking at when she had run to Hong Kong after the Japanese invaded and set up internment camps. There was so much unspoken, like Unit 731 and essentially a Chinese holocaust. So I wrote a long form poem, trying to speak out for all of the atrocities and how she [my great-grandmother] ran most likely because of them. And Yael said that these stories end with me now, so I began working on all of this to trace and acknowledge and try to unearth my own history.
BG: Did you interview your mother or other family members? What did you learn through this process and did it change how you saw your family?
JH: It was super cool as a way to connect to my own mom. In a lot of ways, I paralleled the lost son in my family. I ran away from home to Montreal and it was a second rift trying to not disappear in my own family. So talking to her was this way of hearing all of these childhood stories, which was so important to me. My great grandmother… she was a lioness. She was a modern women, she smoked and she never married again. “I’m happy with my one son. I’m happy to live here now. I’m good.” And that’s what she was like. I would often bring my partner over during the interviews and so my mother spoke these stories in English. She would say, “Your uncle, he swam and swam and swam and he got there,” and found the most basic ways to communicate these epic stories. I got to see a picture of my mom when she came to Canada — a woman without any English, without my father, with two sons — and also who she is now.
BG: You have gone through multiple phases of development with the script. What are you learning so far in rehearsal?
JH: I’m learning about how to give all of myself. Composing the music and playing piano, that was director Nina [Lee Aquino]’s idea. Piano is something I have grown up with since I was 5. It’s another way to give myself through music.
BG: Can you tell me more about your relationship to the piano, both as a musician and as a composer?
JH: I started in Hong Kong at 5, it was seen as a good skill set for me to have. I totally went into it adverse, but knew I had to appease my parents. I found my love for performance, though I never got along with any of my piano teachers. But I loved the applause! How I write and how I act stems through musicality, the mood of something. And any other language is just music and that really bridged the gap for me when my english was far worse [then it is now].
BG: The music of language is in the show, as well. Canto is such a musical language.
JH: Canto is always there for me. There are things that I just don’t know how to articulate in English. [Cantonese is] so succinct, it takes four words to say what it takes a paragraph to say in English. With Great Grandma and how she dealt with her kids and how she spoke her stories, it was important to include. We hear text from the women and the men speak through music. I didn’t want the men to speak, I wanted to hear the women and what they wanted to say, and we get the intention and feeling from the men from the piano.
BG: Tell me about working with Nina Lee Aquino.
JH: It’s a new relationship. I have known her as mentor, as teacher, as dramaturge, but I have never worked with her as director. We have a shorthand, but she loves using pop culture references and as an immigrant, sometimes I get lost! It’s a fluid and natural evolution. There’s a frankness to it. She will never let me off the hook, I can never hide in my words or anything, she will challenge me to get there and not to be precious.
BG: trace is so personal. What has been the greatest challenge creating it?
JH: In giving back and acknowledging my family, I have always dealt with the guilt of leaving my home. As a teenager I felt theatre was a greater calling but I was truly breaking my mother’s heart. There was a lot of ‘you’re a terrible son, you don’t honour our family’, and I can’t [honour them] in the way they want me to. I’m nomadic and mobile and artistic. But I can honour them in the way that I know, through everything I love.
BG: Have they seen it in any form?
JH: My mom has read snippets of it. I’ll transcribe things she’s said and show them to her. I’m excited and nervous for sure. Memory is fiction, and so I want to honour and reveal truths about our family.
BG: What are some of your inspirations right now?
JH: Yael Farber. When I get down on myself or I don’t know what I want to do, I read interviews with Yael Farber. She is the most articulate, does not settle for anything less than the painful truth, and she wants to shed light on what we’re capable of. I pull out my guts and get back to work. I’ve been wrapped up in Chopin, Rachmaninoff, the more turbulent composers. And Bijork’s song Black Lake, it’s about a pain and trauma in her family, and it’s 10 minutes long.
Written by and starring Jeff Ho
A Factory production in association with b current performing arts
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino
trace follows three generations of mother and son from the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong to Canada in the 21st century. Combining virtuosic original piano compositions with an incredible performance and lyrical text, this exquisite and stimulating one man chamber play offers a new look into the lasting implications of sacrifice across generations.
Factory Theatre Studio Theatre
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto
November 11-December 3