East and west meet before the hardness of history: a conversation with Diana Tso

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Jen Hum Phoebe Hu, Vania Chan, and Vicki Kim in Comfort. Photo by Dahlia Katz

The 1937-45 Sino-Japanese war, the Asian leg of the Second World War, remains under-historicised in the west. Its most brutal event, the invasion of the then-capital of the Nationalist China, Nanking, by the imperial Japanese army, remains under-acknowledged in the east too, playwright Diana Tso tells me, and for a host of conflicting reasons. Japanese historiography still downplays the atrocities—estimated by other historians to be between 200,000 and 300,000 Nanking residents killed and tens of thousands of women raped. A great number of the surviving “comfort women” and their families prefer not to talk about their lives in conditions of sexual slavery due to the stigma. But books do exist, and are coming out with increasing frequency, and Tso used them for initial research for her latest play with music (a contemporary masque, in many ways), Comfort, opening tomorrow with Red Snow Collective at Aki Studio in Regent Park.

Tso had read Iris Chang’s The Rape of Nanking, the collection Chinese Comfort Women, and a book of testimonies by Japanese soldiers and their victims collected by a Japanese journalist, but it was her travels to Korea and China over the last ten years, for research and inspiration and activism, that shaped more directly her play. In 2009 she met some of the survivors in China and Korea. “They have created ‘houses of sharing’ in Korea where some of the grandmothers live together, paint, try to build a community and heal,” says Tso. “To this day, every Wednesday they stand in front of the Japanese embassy and ask for recognition of the crime and an apology.”

During the Japanese occupation of the city, about 20 remaining westerners, banking on their foreign power citizenships and employing not a small amount of chutzpah, marked off a Nanking Safety Zone with Red Cross flags and proclaimed it a no-atrocity area. It worked. In one of those perverse twists that history excels at, a German businessman who also happened to be a confirmed Nazi rescued thousands of Chinese and is now acknowledged as one of the most reliable witnesses  of Japanese brutality in Nanking. During her last visit to Nanjing, Tso met a widow of a man who had stayed in the ‘international zone’ and asked her to share the story of how they met. It was that encounter that planted the seed of the play as a love story amid historical unrest.

But nothing is straightforward: there’s a play within a play, and frequent incursions into mythology. “In my play, we follow a fisherman and a merchant’s daughter. Both are in love with the opera called Butterfly Lovers – an actual Chinese opera piece in which a knowledge-hungry girl is not allowed to go to school because of her gender. The woman in my play suffers similar fate; her upper-class merchant’s family has promised her hand in marriage. So, it’s 1937 in Shanghai. Two people fall in love. The war breaks out, she escapes her family home and the arranged marriage and is eager to help in the Chinese war effort, but is immediately captured. He, meanwhile, embarks on a search for her.”

Music is composed by Constantine Caravassilis and is there for dramaturgical accents, for atmosphere, for scene enrichment. Comfort is not a sung-through, through-composed opera, but an eclectic dramatic creation with music. The small band consists of erhu, percussion, accordion and piano. “I first worked with musicians exploring the text and the movement, while the composer worked on the score and proposed music – and this mix resulted in new text and new scenes.” Tso’s monologue for the Moon about devastation of humanity came out of just such a collaborative alchemy. “It would not have happened if I was working in isolation at home on a pre-music text. It was music that made me see things.” It’s only after that stage of collaboration that they (the director is William Yong) added straight theatre actors to the mix. In the  final show, there are 3 musicians, one professional dancer, one opera singer (soprano Vania Chan) and 7 actors, one of whom specializes in acrobatics. “If you put a group of different creators in the room, you want to use what each of them has as their forte.”

It will come as no surprise that Tso has the Jacques Lecoq School on her CV. “In other schools you’re trained as one thing only–an actor–with very specific skills; there, people of different skills come together, some are dancers, some directors, some actors. You’re exploring all those simultaneously, being a director, a writer, an actor, working as an ensemble to create something new. Instead of waiting for your agent to invite you to acting auditions, you create your own work.”

Comfort runs Nov 26 to Dec 10: Info & tickets

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Vania Chan, Phoebe Hu, Vicki Kim (front) and Jen Hum. Photo by Dahlia Katz.

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