At Kogawa House

Writing for Social Change — Tara Beagan

November 30th, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Tara Beagan arrived on the redeye from Toronto on Sunday  morning, Native Earth’s annual playwrights’ workshop Weekesageechak Begins to Dance having concluded its 22th  season the night before.  A two week intensive collaboration between playwrights, choreographers, actors, directors and dramaturge, Weesageechak always ends with public “readings” of the new work. Well readings that are usually blocked out performances, and the actors often know their lines.

It was at Weesageechak that I first saw Dreary and Izzy, Tara’s play about sister love and loyalty across race, adoption and the ravages of foetal alcohol syndrome.  The play went on to full production at Factory Studio Theatre in Toronto, and even before it opened the response from one corner of the Aboriginal community was to demand it be closed. The objection?  Beagan was stereotyping the Aboriginal community by associating it with FAS.

The show went on. And Tara talked to us about being shocked herself when she learned about FAS. Despite its widespread effects, like many, she had had no idea. It was her sister, a schoolteacher in Alberta, who  first described its effects to her, and this was the inspiration for Izzy, the  adopted Native sister, and her younger “elder” sister Dreary.

The excerpt we read – I did the lines of Mrs. Harper, the white neighbour, and Tara did all the other voices – described the horror of newborns on withdrawal, as well as the grace in children like Izzy not understanding what they’ve lost.  At the heart of the play is the relationship of the two sisters, characters who rise to the occasion, defying stereotype.

Tara talked about how real events can spark a play — as a review in the Toronto Star of Native Earth’s production of A Very Polite Genocide, or the Girl Who Fell to Earth did for Anatomy of an Indian. Despite the backgrounder Native Earth prepared for press coming to see the preview of the play, the review used the term Indian in the first sentence. Apparently the Star’s “style guide” overruled the use of Native. The term Indian, it claimed, “while objectionable to some, is perfectly useable.”

The great thing about drama is the way it can bring rhetoric down to the personal. The play involved the audience and two actors (one
Caucasian, the other Lorne Cardinal) who test out how “useable” insulting epithets are in real life. Write your own worst insult on a label and see how you like hearing it announced from the stage…

Tara spoke of several other plays that do that, take a dead-serious issue and turn it whacky.  In her short play Here, Boy a gay couple and a homeless Native man who’s living in the park and trapping small animals for food are brought together when Maurice`s partner Dale decides to approach Jesse for an apology. Maurice, who’s inconsolable at the loss of his beloved pet dog , needs closure.  (Seriously. )

In short, keep an eye open for Native theatre/performance going on near you. Don’t think that it’s only for Aboriginal audiences.

At Kogawa House

Meeting Howe Chan

November 1st, 2011 § 0 comments § permalink

Shortly after I arrived at Kogawa House, artist Laura Bucci came for an evening session of button making. She arrived with several plastic packing boxes filled with an array of coloured and patterned paper, old magazines, scissors, glue, and a collection of rubber stamps with words like “escape” and “passion” on them.  The event was part of Word on the Street, which expanded this year to three days over the weekend, and to off the traditional site at the Central Library to community venues like Kogawa House.

We set up a table in the living room and over the evening about twenty-five people set to creating their own “designer” buttons.  The best part, naturally, was the moment you got to slip your creation onto its metal backing with Laura’s neat little hand-press, and pop out the result.

That evening I also met Howe Chan.  Howe contacted me last November just after I returned from China.  I’d been to Taishan, the county in Guangdong which many Chinese Canadians came from, looking for the story of a head tax payer named Wong Dong Wong who left China for Canada in 1911. The Saturday before I left for Beijing, Sing Tao published a front page story about my search. Howe, who happened to be in Taishan himself at the time, saw the story when he returned home, got his daughter Jennifer to sleauth down my phone number, and called me up.

“If only I’d known,” were practically his first words. “I was there in Taishan right at the same time, and could have taken you to his village.”  My own visit had yielded the fact that Mr. Wong was an orphan whose father died the same month he was born in 1895, and his mother a few months later. Mr. Wong was brought to Gold Mountain by an uncle to work in the business he was setting up with two others in South Vancouver.  Howe grew up in a village very close to Wing Ning where Mr. Wong was born, and knows it well. As a boy he often fished in the river that runs in front of it, and remembers going there at lunar New Year with his mother to see Cantonese opera.

I began sending Howe copies of material I’d gathered.  The official Wong family tree from the Bureau of Overseas Chinese and Foreign Affairs, and the family’s own handwritten genealogy that dates back to the 1870s shown to me by the grandson of Wong Wanshen, the uncle who sponsored Mr. Wong.  In return Howe sent me copies of histories he written about the Chen family, and montages of photos and maps of Taishan with detailed notations written in a very precise and clear hand. Howe does not do computers, so over the year we sent stuff back and forth through the mail, and had long conversations on the phone.

Howe is now my chief advisor on all things to do with Shui Doi – the name of Wing Ning in the local dialect. But since meeting him in person and getting to know him, I have also heard more about his story, and the hardship of his mother in particular. Separated from her husband for decades she was forced to live out her life alone in China. For in 1946, despairing of ever reuniting, Howe’s father had married in Canada. The very next year the exclusion laws were lifted.

Today, Howe leaves for another trip back to his village. He’s undertaken to visit Shui Doi and to see what else he can find out about Mr. Wong. By this time, too, he has discovered his own connection to Wong`s story. There in the family tree he discovered his own mother,a cousin of my Mr. Wong, five times removed but in the same generation.

I’ve always been aware that Canada is a small country. I didn’t realize that China, in some ways, is a small place, too.