“We are women who do what must be done.”
So says the cigarette-puffing, mahjong-addicted great-grandmother in Jeff Ho’s one-man play trace, now at the NAC.
The fallout of doing what you must do, especially in fraught circumstances, is the subject of Ho’s taut, chamber piece about three generations of women in his family.
The nimble Ho plays his sharp-tongued great-grandmother, his icy grandmother and his hard-assed mother on a bare of any set except two pianos, which face each other. A scattering of items – lit cigarettes which appear in the great-grandmother’s fingers seemingly from nowhere, a few ashtrays, some sheet music, the clothes on the performer’s back – are the only props.
From this spare assembly of materials and a rich if occasionally confusing script, Ho fashions a textured world in which acute survival instincts, emotional defensiveness and a particularly tough form of love allow the three women to single-handedly raise their families as they struggle for a better life.
His great-grandmother, two young children in tow, flees her native China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s, winding up in Hong Kong where she earns money by flogging tea and pork buns. She’s the family matriarch, funny and cruel and defiant to the end, referring to her son-in-law as Mr. Chihuahua and taking on all comers as she gambles away her money at mahjong.
His grandmother — and her story is never entirely clear — raises her daughter alone while caring for an ill husband. She deals with her turmoil and gets on with the job of living by building a cold, dismissive exterior.
Ho’s own mother, giving up on her “flighty” husband, hightails it from Hong Kong to Toronto with her two young sons, intent on becoming an accountant and instead ending up as a personal support worker cleaning the soiled behinds of old people.
The struggles — endless work, isolation, sole responsibility for their families — take a toll on the women and their children, who in turn visit their fractured lives on their own kids.
Ho has structured these stories as a piano sonata in five movements, linking the lives of the three women with a musical and emotional rather than linear through line. A classically trained musician, Ho plays with a honed touch as he pays tribute to and unveils the sometimes ugly reality of his female progenitors.
Most intriguingly, the men in the story speak only through the music. When a young man comes courting, his voice is a warm, vulnerable medley that includes a snippet of Plaisir d’amour. A puffed-up Canadian immigration officer barks questions at Ho’s mother in the form of strident snatches of O Canada.
Ho’s credits for the show include composer, so presumably he wrote some of the music while arranging all of it, including a very funny fragment of The Mikado’s Three Little Maids From School Are We (occasional swipes at racial stereotypes add both humour and gravitas to a show that contains an admirable mixture of both).
It should be noted at this point that my guest, whose musical ear is far more astute than mine, wondered why both pianos were out of tune. I defer to him on that score.
Woven through the story is Ho’s own self-discovery. He wants to be a pianist; his mother, viewing the piano as a pleasant hobby that will instill in her son self-discipline, wants him to excel at math so he can wind up as a captain of corporate Canada. “If you play piano again, you are dead to me,” she says in devastating tones at one point.
He, of course, with stubbornness part of his genetic makeup, does exactly what he wants to do.
And remember: We learn all this without Ho ever being a character in the show and speaking, in a delicious touch, only through his own beloved piano music.
Ho’s skill as an actor (he was a wonderful Ophelia in Ravi Jain’s Prince Hamlet last season at the NAC) is such that what you see on the stage is not a short-haired man in a stylish suit but three women, each distinct physically and otherwise.
Yes, there are a couple of instances when it’s uncertain who is speaking — Ho was criticized for this when he debuted the show in 2017 — and director Nina Lee Aquino needs to resolve this with Ho. But that’s a quibble in what is a fine and affecting reflection on women’s strength, family, music and identity.
In town: Trace is a Factory Theatre (Toronto) production playing in the Azrieli Studio until Nov. 23. It was reviewed Thursday. Tickets: NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, 1-888-991-2787, nac-cna.ca