2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival Review: Lucky (barlizo productions)

Photo of Katharine King, Christian Jadah by Tanja TizianaLucky by Montreal-based playwright Marie Barlizo, now playing in Toronto as part of the Next Stage Theatre Festival, was inspired by the sensational and grizzly story of Jennifer Pan, a Vietnamese-Canadian woman in Markham who was convicted of hiring killers to murder her parents as a response to their abusive “tiger parenting.”

There is a lot to unpack in Pan’s story; like the extreme pressure many Asian parents place on their kids to succeed academically, believing that it will help their kids overcome the barriers and systemic racism they themselves faced. 

In Lucky, Barlizo imagines a dialogue between Nina (Katharine King), a high-achieving 19-year-old Filipina-Canadian and Sylvain (Christian Jadah), a (barely) reformed skinhead/white supremacist that she has just hooked up with at a bar. 

As the unlikely pair learn more and more about each other, it’s fascinating to observe how the power dynamic shifts back and forth between the two characters. He’s easily twice her size and is physically aggressive with her, but increasingly she connives and manipulates him, intentionally stirring up his latent racist sentiments to whip up his rage as if provoking a pit bull to attack.

This dance between the two characters is easily the most interesting aspect of the show. There’s an underlying tension between the two that keeps the audience constantly on-edge.

It seemed to me like Barlizo was also attempting to humanize her characters, but I found myself having difficulty empathizing with either one of them. Both Nina and Sylvain are fundamentally broken, for sure, but I also found both of them too archetypal to feel like fully fleshed-out characters. 

I also found myself grappling to understand the characters’ motivations. I understand the pressure of overbearing Asian Tiger-parents and although that’s not the same as having abusive parents, it still seemed like a huge stretch to me for Nina to want to have her parents killed. I really wanted to delve into the psyche of someone who would do such an extreme thing but I don’t think I got a satisfying answer in the character of Nina.

There are some solid performances in Lucky, as well as some interesting interplay between the two characters, but as an examination of the cultural phenomenon of Asian parents pressuring their kids to succeed or, more-specifically, a dive into the Jennifer Pan case, I’m looking for a little more depth.

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Photo of Katharine King, Christian Jadah by Reese Turner