Produced by Human Burrito Productions, Decaying Tongue playing at the Toronto Fringe Festival is touching in its honesty, interesting through specific cultural details, and compelling with its ingenious structure and staging. It is inspired by the real-life search for self of Kaho Koda, the Japanese-born and, for eight years now, Canadian resident playwright and director of the show.
In the program, Koda tells us that she doesn’t aim to educate us but to start a conversation. She keeps her word. Aya’s back and forth journey from Japan to the US, and eventually, Canada is brought to life through scenes that gave me the feeling of lived experience and personal memories.
Decaying Tongue raises the question most immigrants face when skin colour or foreign accent single them out: “Where are you ‘from’ from?” It makes fun of ethnic stereotyping and focuses on the inner conflict of a person torn between Japan and the Western world.
The mixture of comedy and poetic symbols works very well. Aya, for example, is split into two characters, one representing her more upbeat Western side (Sachi Lovatt) and the other the more restrained Japanese self (Mei Miyazawa). They smoothly take turns talking to the other characters without being a distraction for the audience.
Most often, they disagree about daily behaviour and etiquette, as well as about the sense of self. Western Aya pleads for speaking up for herself instead of obediently nodding. In contrast, the Japanese Aya is against individualism, which she calls the self-centred “me, me, me!” attitude. In the end, they reconcile and decide to continue their Japanese-Canadian journey together.
In North America, we live in a world where “I love you” sometimes stands for “Goodbye!” at the end of a phone call. The scene when Aya’s trying to convince her mother (Daniella Dela Pena) to say these words is heart-breaking.
The awkward encounters with her father (Jaemoon Lee) are equally painful as Aya builds up her courage to hug him but expects to be brushed off. I missed a few of Lee’s lines and would have liked for him project his voice with more confidence if only to hear him. He was louder and more energetic as Matt, an enthusiastic Japanese-Italian-Canadian film student Aya meets on Tinder, one of the funniest scenes in the show.
The only “Canadian”-Canadian character is burdened with the task of representing a collection of stereotypes of all kinds. He’s not only sure that all Asians are good at math, but also that an Acting course is “easy.” Cory Bertrand is a charming douchebag in this scene and even better as Aya’s caring gay friend later in the show.
“How does it feel to be rejected by your own culture?” is the second important and perhaps less common question. Aya recalls how she felt a foreigner in Japan after living for a few years in Seattle. When her family settles in Montreal, she struggles with one more culture shock and feels excluded because she doesn’t know French.
Humour with a touch of self-irony is what I enjoyed the most in the show. Decaying Tongue showcases the challenges of being an immigrant with a perfect English accent in and Asian features, but Koda doesn’t feel sorry for herself. Instead, she believes that actions are more important than words. How can we not agree?
- Decaying Tongue plays at the Randolph Theatre (736 Bathurst St.).
- Tickets are $13, including a $2 service charge. The festival also offers a range of money-saving passes and discounts for serious Fringers.
- Tickets can be purchased online, by telephone (416-966-1062), from the Festival Box Office at Scadding Court (275 Bathurst St.), and — if any remain — from the venue’s box office starting one hour before curtain.
- Content Warning: mature language.
- This venue is wheelchair-accessible through a secondary route. We recommend checking in with the venue box office at least 15 minutes before showtime.
- Be aware that Fringe performances always start exactly on time, and that latecomers are never admitted.
- The Toronto Fringe Festival is scent-free: please do not wear perfumes, colognes, or other strongly-scented products.
- Friday July 5th, 4:15 pm
- Sunday July 7th, 8:00 pm
- Monday July 8th, 2:15 pm
- Thursday July 11th, 10:45 pm
- Friday July 12th, 4:30 pm
- Saturday July 13th, 1:00 pm
- Sunday July 14th, 5:15 pm
Photo by Sachi Lovatt, Mei Miyazawa, and Cory Bertrand by Leo Montero