An ancient secret language and political intrigue; Eventual Ashes presents its new show Hiding Words (for you) by Gein Wong at Toronto’s Harbourfront Centre
Nushu is a writing system developed in ancient China possibly as far back as 400 AD. Based on a simplified version of Chinese characters, Nushu was hidden in embroidery patterns and was developed as a means for Chinese women of the time to communicate despite the fact that they were forbidden from formal education.
Playwright Gein Wong uses Nushu as a thematic through-line to tie together the script and visual elements of her new show, Hiding Words (for you). Wong is the 2012 Canadian Stage RBC BASH! director in residence and is a prolific playwright, artist, musician and composer who has worked in poetry and video art. She brings a multi-disciplinary approach to her shows; Hiding Words (for you) incorporates elements of dance, poetry, and video projections.
When you first enter the auditorium, the set is dramatically draped with swaths of red fabric and large overhead scrims stretch out like sails over the audience. The dulcet tones of The Butterfly Lovers concerto played on erhu (Chinese violin) echo through the air. The audience is seated in opposition on both sides of the stage; an S-shaped runway cleaving the auditorium in two, like a yin-yang.
The story is structured so that it jumps back and forth in time and space from Guangzhou, China in 1850 at the onset of the Taiping Rebellion to present-day Vancouver and then to Hong Kong in 2007 in the lead-up to the Beijing Olympics.
Nushu (embodied by dancer Soomi Kim) creates a mysterious bond across time and space between a young Chinese-Canadian spoken-word artist named Grace (Stephanie Jung); suspected of cyber terrorism and being grilled in a secret government interrogation room in present-day Vancouver, and Wing-Yin (Rebecca Applebaum), a restless, young Chinese girl who desperately wants to learn to read despite the fact that formal education is forbidden to girls in ancient Guangzhou.
The script draws parallels between the oppressive feudalism of Qing dynasty China and the heavy-handed modern-day Western governments making arrests on mere suspicion of terrorism and using warrantless online spying in the post 9/11 world.
The show picks up in the second half when the action shifts to Hong Kong where Grace enters an artists’ loft and meets a performance artist named Blackberry (Traci Kato-Kiriyama) and an aspiring rapper, MC Yeung (John Ng), who are planning a political protest on the eve of the Beijing Olympics. The disparate threads of the story converge revealing mysterious relationships.
Hiding Words (for you) shows a lot of promise. I thought it was beautifully designed, it’s visually interesting although I found the elaborate screens and scrims a bit underused and would have like to see more projection elements integrated into the show.
Stephanie Jung delivers a standout performance as Grace. She really succeeds at making the character relatable and serves as the focal point and anchor for the audience to access the story. Richard Lee is also deliciously sinister as the government interrogator.
The script is layered with intrigue though I did find some of the scenes a bit long and the pacing of the show lagged in spots. With a bit of re-working of the script and tightening of the pacing the show could really pop.
- Eventual Ashes’ Hiding Words (for you) is playing from September 15 to 23, 2012 at Enwave Theatre, Harbourfront Centre (231 Queen’s Quay West).
- Shows run Tuesdays to Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Saturdays and Sundays at 3 p.m. and 8 p.m.
- Tickets $15 to $25
- Tickets are available at the on-site box office, by phone 416-973-4000, press 1, by e-mail email@example.com or visit harbourfrontcentre.com
- Photo of Soomi Kim by Jacklyn Atlas