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“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. 

Jeff Ho in trace. Photo Credit: Marko Kovacevic

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.

trace

Who:
Written by and starring Jeff Ho
A Factory production in association with b current performing arts
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino

What:
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.

Where:
Factory Theatre Studio Theatre
125 Bathurst Street, Toronto

When:
November 11-December 3

Tickets:
factorytheatre.ca

Connect:
@kjeffho

ARTIST PROFILE: The afteROCK Plays: In Conversation with Sébastien Heins and Catherine Hernandez of Brotherhood and Femme Playlist.

Interview by Bailey Green

I interviewed Sébastien Heins and Catherine Hernandez about their solo shows, Brotherhood and Femme Playlist, playing at Buddies in Bad Times presented by b current as part of their afteROCK Plays series. They were both such a joy to interview. Their passion, gratitude and openness radiated as they spoke about their work. Catherine’s interjections with the children she cares for in her home daycare peppered our chat, “I’m feel like I’m the queer filipino version of Louis CK, children are very funny creatures and I approach my care of them with honour and humour.” And Sébastien had me laughing with his enthusiasm and bashfulness when discussing the title, and the creation, of his piece’s opening song, “Threesome with my bro.” #BroHood and #FemmePlaylist captivated me with each performance’s tremendous energy and detail. I had the pleasure of witnessing their creations and hope that many of you will too.

On the origins of the piece:

SÉBASTIEN: Brotherhood the hip hopera started as a fifteen minute solo show when I was a student at NTS. We were tasked with creating a show that was spurred on by a burning question. My burning question was “what if I had had a brother?” As an only child, this question held a lot of ammunition for me. So the piece is about these two brothers, Cash Money and Money Pussy. They have this crazy night where they rap at and with each other, sing r&b songs, and the night culminates into an epic climax where one of the brothers is killed in a car accident.

CATHERINE: The idea began when I did an interview for Ron Jones’ radio show in Harlem. He asked for was a playlist of your life. So I did that interview and it was a three hour long conversation. I was laughing and crying along to the soundtrack of my life. My friend Kim Katrin Milan began to host a retreat, often at my house, called Brave New Girls Retreats, for queer femmes of colour. We talk, meditate, do yoga and practice self-care. It was around then that I realized that my narrative was experienced by so many, but heard by none. Originally it [Femme Playlist] was a fifteen minute excerpt at Amplify Femme at VideoFag and then it snowballed from there to became a 45 minute piece that I did at a decolonizing conference and it went on from there.

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On the path to the afteROCK Plays series:

CATHERINE: In 2013 I called b current just before the rock.paper.sistahz festival. It was past the submission date, but I called anyway. I needed a night to perform the show in it’s entirety to test out the flow. I wanted to get a sense of the narrative and transitions. And b current said yes. It was a hit [with the audience] and there was a standing O. That was my first draft so [it was good to know] it connected. It moved on to Rhubarb, which is usually only shorter pieces, but Brendan Healy wanted it to stay intact and be full length. I was so, so honoured and I knew it [the piece] had legs (which is actually my burlesque name.) Then when I was selected for afteROCK, Gein Wong came on board as my director which was great. I feel very blessed.

SÉBASTIEN: [At National Theatre School] People liked it [Brotherhood], the dance and physicality, theatre and storytelling, they dug it. So I challenged myself to create a 60 minute version. I took Brotherhood to the largest solo festival in the world in NYC, United Solo, and I won Best Emerging Artist, but I knew I wasn’t done. Then b current gave me this opportunity to be in their afteROCK play series. They give me [and Catherine] everything a professional production would get. We built a light wall, like Kanye or Jay-z would have. My director Karin Randoja—one of the founders of Primus Theatre—she directed and dramaturged it into a new show. It’s more mature and braver than it was before, and I’m very proud of it.

On the experience for the audience: 

SÉBASTIEN: We have local up and coming hip hop acts opening the show, a couple nights we have ten year old breakdancers outside. It should feel like the fiction has already started, so it’s like you’re at a Cash Money/Money Pussy show when it starts. The piece deals with fame, facades, masculinity, the way men have to front and show themselves off which doesn’t always coincide with how they feel. There’s the bond of brothers and how it’s broken by the stress and the game. It is a hip hop opera, so you’ll recognize the medium as you watch it. There’s large emotions and big, arcing, epic story-line.

CATHERINE: Femme Playlist is a one woman show that tells the realities of being a queer woman of colour, a single mom and a femme. Queer theatre a lot of the time is grown in very subversive spaces, the tradition of the queer salon is in someone’s basement or small theatre hovel. So being in a much larger space with lighting and sound, it’s magic.

Photo Credit: Jacklyn Atlas

Photo Credit: Jacklyn Atlas

On being part of a team:

SÉBASTIEN: I have to shout out my sound designer Micky Rodriguez. He’s a beat maker and rapper, and he has been amazing. The music in the show before served a purpose but now the tracks are all bumped up, which is a game changer. We have this opening, I laugh every time I have to say it outside the show, but it’s called “Threesome with my Bro” which is like Cash Money and Money Pussy’s greatest single. I originally did the instrumental and I knew it was so not up to par, but Micky really put his energy into it and gave it a trap beat. We have another song where it’s raining and the droplets become a beat for the song, with like an usher “U got it Bad” feel, so the sound helps create the next moment in the story musically

CATHERINE: Gein Wong is so special with her vision when it comes to lighting and sound. I love having a team. The team is a chosen family. Our production manager Suzie Balogh was one of my students when I taught at Factory Theatre. She was a kid in highschool studying my play Singkil and now I look over and she’s at the board. It means a lot to see a story like this in the mainspace, that this story is being heard and that their [femme] lives are important.

On the challenges faced with this piece:

SÉBASTIEN: Not being the producer actually. This piece is my baby, so when you hire outside people you just have to trust them to do their job and not think about it. I took that freefall in letting go and it’s a huge step to go in and just be a performer. It can also be hard to re-vamp and re-envision a work, before it was more crowd pleasing. The second act starts in the 70s and 80s, and it’s still funny but it does get dark and scary. I never would have had such an intimate look at these characters had we not done that. They’re men who inspire and challenge me as characters in a way they have never done before. All I can do is bare myself and show my work and hope people get something out of it.

CATHERINE: I’m a brown woman which means that the traditions that I heed to are multidisciplinary, but to me that’s storytelling. It can be hard for people to understand that sometimes. People are getting there, but this piece will help people understand my jive. Written down it doesn’t always translate, you need to see it visually. I hope it helps bring about a greater understanding of multidisciplinary.

On the greatest joy experienced with this piece: 

SÉBASTIEN: [Through this process] there was many times in rehearsal where I felt I’m part of a team. And as a solo performer I think that’s rare. It can be really lonely, and it’s all on you. The audience is just staring at you. I feel so supposed by my team, they’re like my rock. Like 300 Spartans behind me.

CATHERINE: The day of opening night I found out on Twitter that Jennifer Laude, a trans Filipina, was found dead in a motel room. She was murdered by a U.S. marine. This news is tragic because it’s so widespread. I knew I needed to dedicate my performance to her for opening night, if there’s any femme I could give this to…and I felt her all day. Every queer that hugged me yesterday [opening night], we have a narrative of loss and judgement and danger and to know that I have the privilege to be the person on stage to speak on behalf of all of us. [When I’m onstage I have] queer in my ears, between my fingers, in my hair and all around me. What I love about being queer is we can laugh and cry about our triumphs and tragedies.

afteRock EFLYER

Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera

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Created/Performed by Sébastien Heins

Directed by Karin Randoja

a co-production with Sébastien Heins

This live virtuosic hip hop show tells the story of superstar sibling duo CashMoney & MoneyPussy, chronicling their climb to success, breaking apart, and epic reunion.

#BroHood trailer: 

fb event: https://www.facebook.com/events/687971971283848/declines/

Tag photobooth selfies with @CashMoneyRaps on twitter & instagram

The Femme Playlist

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Created/Performed by Catherine Hernandez

Directed by Gein Wong

a co-production with Sulong Theatre Company and Eventual Ashes

From masturbation to motherhood, body shame to burlesque, Catherine Hernandez uncovers the realities of living as a queer woman of colour set to the music of her life.

#FemmePlaylist trailer: 

fb event: https://www.facebook.com/events/1458812434386125/

Mature sexual content and coarse language in both shows – recommended for ages 16 and older.

Showtimes:

Both shows play every day (except Monday, October 20) until Ocotber 25. Schedule below.

Additional performance of Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera on Wednesday, October 22nd at 1pm, $10 (purchase by phone or in person, available online soon).

Regular updates via social media

@bcurrentLIVE on twitter

#afteRock2014 #bcurrent

www.facebook.com/bcurrentperformingarts

Tickets & Venue:

Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander Street | Toronto | M4Y 1B4

Box Office: 416-975-8555

http://buddiesinbadtimes.com/2014-15/afterock-plays/

$15-$50

Student/Senior/Arts Worker/Underemployed discounts available

Rush tickets ($15) available the day of, in person only at noon.

Pay-what-you-can to this Sunday’s performances

2-for-1 tickets for femmes to The Femme Playlist on Friday, October 17, and Tuesday-Thursday October 21-23.

Get 50% off second ticket to Brotherhood: The Hip Hopera when you bring your sibling.

afteRock-Schedule

What afteRock is:

A play series that takes select plays from past b current rock.paper.sistahz theatre+ Festivals to the next level as workshop and full productions co-produced by b current and the show’s artists.

This edition of the series is presented by b current as part of the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre’s 2014-2015 – both shows were hand-picked by Artistic Director Jajube Mandiela from the 12th rock.paper.sistahz Festival.