Jeff Ho is a quadruple threat: he can write, he can act, he can compose and he can raise the roof at the piano keys. trace, his one-man show at Factory Studio Theatre, has been in development for two years. The raw materials were easy to come by: his own family’s migrant history, traced through three generations of powerful Chinese women: his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother.
Ho impersonates all three women, shifting to the piano to pound out Beethoven or a popular tune as the storyline calls for it.
Fully outfitted in an elegant ivory suit and tropical shoes, Ho enters as an apparently delirious woman entertaining a nightmare vision of rats overrunning her home. This is great-grandma, Kwan Bo Siu, 85 at this time (2001) and living in a tiny apartment in Hong Kong. She calls for her granddaughter, 44-year-old Kwan Miu Chi, known as Ma. “Where’s Ma? When I wake up I want my money and my food. I want my cigarettes.” Ho as great-grandma deftly produces what looks like a lit cigarette from a sleeve and puffs on it. This trick with a cigarette, the piano accompaniment and the shedding of clothes on Ho’s part become the motifs that tie together a 100-year family saga. “I smoke til I one hundred,” says a defiant great-grandma, and we get a measure of the woman who saved her family and set them on a course first for Hong Kong and then for Canada.
She’s the Mahjong Queen who gambles away so much cash her son and daughter-in-law have to take on extra jobs to keep them fed and clothed. But great-grandmother has born unmentionable tragedy and hardship.
“My family sold me for 10 chickens and a horse,” she declares, lighting another cigarette or shouting out Mahjong! She met her husband on the day of their wedding. But luck was not with them. “What a useless soldier,” she crows. He is killed by the Japanese who have invaded China and Great-Grandma arranges to escape by boat from Guangzhou to Hong Kong with her two sons.
One of them marries and this is where Ho’s grandma, Kwan Wei Foon (64 years old at the time in the play) comes in. In flashbacks, Ho shows how hard grandma worked, often frustrated by her mother-in-law’s bad habits and the struggle to keep alive through the war years. Ma, mother of Jeff and his brother Eric, embarks from Hong Kong for Toronto, working terrible jobs, browbeating her younger son to practise classical piano and threatening him with removal of lessons should he start playing songs – as Ho does – like “Can’t help falling in love with you.” In Ma’s mind Jeff should think only of becoming a chartered accountant. Luckily for us, he moves to Montreal and pursues a theatrical career.
Just over an hour long, trace is structured as a piano sonata in five movements with a prologue and coda. But this demarcation does nothing to allow us to follow the story that has been chopped up into pieces that shift rapidly between times and characters. Better direction might have opened the play up some, so that we could pick up the thread of the story and clearly identify each of the three women at any given moment. Better dramaturgy might have shaped the play into fragments that cohere more. While anyone can marvel at Ho’s acting, piano playing and mastery of emotion, one is not entirely sure who’s who at the point at which a family tragedy is revealed.
Written, composed and performed by Jeff Ho
Directed by Nina Lee Aquino with dramaturgy by Matt McGeachy
Set by Michelle Ramsay and Nina Lee Aquino
Lighting by Michelle Ramsay
Costume by Joanna Yu
A Factory Theatre production in association with b current performing arts
At Factory Studio Theatre, Toronto, through December 3
Photo of Jeff Ho by Dahlia Katz