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The Wongs of the Annex

October 23rd, 2012 · No Comments

Hit SummerWorks play explores hard choices in marriage

By Melania Daniel

Its stage name is A Song for Tomorrow, but this Annex-based play, which enjoyed a successful debut at SummerWorks this year, could have easily been called The Story of the Wongs.

For one, a trio of unrelated Wongs dominated the program credits on opening night. But while playwright Christina Wong, stage manager Beth Wong, and director, co-producer, and sound and projection technician Gein Wong deserved every accolade, it was the unmentioned Wongs who carried the story.

Theatre-goers were given a hint in the playwright’s notes that there was some personal element to the play—that it was influenced by her parents’ marriage—but few would have guessed how closely May and Ping, the male and female characters in the two-person play, were patterned on actual events in the life of the Wongs of the Annex.

“I found out, through my parents arguments, that my mum wanted to leave my dad in the early stages of their marriage,” said Christina Wong. “Some of the dialogue is real.”

That may not have been apparent to the near-capacity audience that filled the 65-seat Backspace performance venue of Theatre Passe Muraille (16 Ryerson Ave.). It’s a nod to the playwright’s mastery of her craft that the play is not in the nakedly autobiographical or embarrassingly confessional genre.

Even less obvious was that an unassuming, frail Chinese woman who was seated front row on opening night, sometimes quietly sobbing as the drama unfolded on stage, was the muse for May, the character of the wife on stage. Anna Wong, 65, the playwright’s mother, had no idea that she was the star of her daughter’s show until four days before the play opened.

“I just told my mum it was loosely based on her,” said Christina Wong. “It’s close to home. That’s why I was reluctant to tell my mom the play was about her. It’s a very delicate project.”

Delicate is an understatement for the subdued tone of this powerful portrayal of a marriage as it unravels against the backdrop of the stresses and tensions of new immigrant life in a “semi-detached house on 539 Markham Street—the same street as Honest Ed (sic) is on,” Ping tells May in a scene when he is teaching her English.

The love story of May and Ping has many memorably sweet moments towards the end, but it is also a thesis in how hard-heartedness happens in long-term marriages.

The story begins at the end, with a frail Ping sitting in a rocking chair with his cane and in pajamas, saying goodbye to the departing figure of May, as she leaves with her packed suitcase. That ending, Christina Wong says, is a powerful message to her mother, who in real life, did not part ways with her husband of almost 40 years, until his death two years ago.

“I’m telling her it would have been okay to leave my dad,” said Christina. “I would have understood her decision. But she’s that selfless person. She stayed because she was thinking of me and my sister.”

Many experiences caused Christina to express such sympathy for the choice her mother might have made.

“One night, at the dinner table, dad just said, ‘You know you have a half-brother?’ And he just dropped it,” said Christina, who has never met her other sibling. “That was all. We were not allowed to ask questions. You find out little bits of your family history along the way.”

The little bits she overheard or was told helped her script her mom’s onstage double, and puts May’s seeming callousness toward her husband at the start of the play in greater perspective. It was a big gamble that ran the risk of alienating audiences from May, who is adamant in her refusal to help her husband off the floor when his arthritic knees give way and his cane is knocked out of his reach.

Waiting to see if she will give in to his pleading and help him up for this umpteenth time is one of the more dramatic moments, and the strong choice she makes in the end is perhaps one of the most redeeming statements about the nature of love and human relationships. As the play progresses backwards, the universal appeal of A Song For Tomorrow plays out in growing sympathy for both May and Ping.

“Moving backwards helps you understand, not just that a person is like that, but a person is like that because of the many little incidents along the way that have shaped them,” said Donna-Michelle St. Bernard, whose company New Harlem productions produced the play.

Like Christina Wong, whose mum is from Hong Kong and father from China, St. Bernard is also of immigrant stock. She came to Canada when she was four with her parents, who were escaping the upheaval of the 1979 Grenada Revolution and its aftermath.

“There are many things my dad would say, ‘I’ll do later’ and my mum would have a disproportionate reaction,” said St. Bernard. “This play helps me understand it’s the reaction of 100 times, not the first time.”

Both St. Bernard and co-producer Gein Wong would like to see the stage run of the play continue past SummerWorks. Gein Wong feels just as strongly as St. Bernard that the play’s themes of love, marriage, parenting, and the hopes and toil of new Canadians will have widespread and lasting appeal. Gein, who is Canadian-born to parents from Hong Kong also, sees his family story in the script.

“My dad never said a lot to me growing up, and the play reminds me of that,” he said. “It may be personal for Christina, but it has a lot of elements immigrants can identify with.”

Tags: Arts