“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 National Arts Centre. 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 Actor and Playwright
Jeff Ho, who wrote and stars in the play, enacts his sharp-tongued great-grandmother, his icy grandmother, and his hard-assed mother as a one-man play. On a bare set except for two pianos that face each other, there’s a scattering of items – lit cigarettes which appear in the great-grandmother’s fingers seemingly from nowhere, a few ashtrays, and some sheet music.
From this sparse assembly of materials, and a rich (occasionally confusing) script, Ho fashions a textured world in which acute survival instincts, emotional defensiveness, and a particularly tough form of love, allows the three women to single-handedly raise their families as they struggle for a better life.
Trio of Women
The great-grandmother, with two young children in tow, flees her native China during the Japanese invasion in the 1930s. She wound up in Hong Kong, where she now earns money by flogging tea and pork buns. She’s the family matriarch, funny, cruel, and defiant to the end; Referring to her son-in-law as Mr. Chihuahua and taking anyone on as she gambles away her money at mahjong. The 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. The character of Ho’s own mother, giving up on her “flighty” husband, hightails it from Hong Kong to Toronto with her two young sons. She’s intent on becoming an accountant and instead of ending up as a personal support worker cleaning the soiled behinds of old people. The endless work, isolation, and sole responsibility for their families took a toll on all three women and their children who in turn, visit their fractured lives on their own kids.
Ho structured these stories as a piano sonata in five movements. He links the lives of the three women with music and emotions, rather than a linear through-line. A classically trained musician, Ho plays with a honed touch as he pays tribute 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 “Oh Canada.”
Jeff Ho is also credited as the show’s composer, presumably writing some music, but arranging all of it. Including, a very funny fragment of The Mikado’s Three Little Maids From School Are We. The occasional swipes at racial stereotypes added both humor and gravitas in an admirable mixture.
It should be noted that at this point, 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 the 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. We learn all this without Ho ever being a character in the show, and speaks in a delicious touch, only through his own beloved piano music.
Last season at the NAC, Jeff Ho was wonderful as Ophelia in Ravi Jain’s Prince Hamlet and his skill as an actor is so extraordinary; what you see on the stage is not a short-haired man in a stylish suit, but three women, each distinct physically and psychologically.
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.
Trace is a Factory Theatre production playing in the Azrieli Studio until Nov. 23. It was reviewed Thursday, Nov 14th Tickets can be purchased through the NAC box office, Ticketmaster outlets, or by phone at 1-888-991-2787
This post was written by the author in their personal capacity.The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of The Theatre Times, their staff or collaborators.