Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
The Monkey King has occupied Diana Tso’s psyche for a long time. First were the folkloric stories from Wu Cheng’En’s 16th Century epic novel The Journey to the West that she encountered as a child. Then she saw the Chinese opera of The Monkey King! while attending Ecole Internationale de Théâtre de Jacques Lecoq in Paris. Back in Canada, she encountered it again while exploring Chinese opera under the mentorship of William Lau, because their repertoire included the movement and makeup of The Monkey King!
Around this time, she heard about auditions to cast a new play starring this classic character; however, she could not audition because the company was considering only male actors for the part. “I wondered about how I could turn this thorn into a rose,” she recalls. “I was then asked to participate in a private workshop, where storytellers would jam with a violinist. There, she began dancing an excerpt of The Monkey King, soaring over the river on his next adventure. During a coffee break, she had an epiphany: “I had to create my own story and re-imagine this myth.”
So she did. And at last, The Monkey Queen receives its world premiere at The Theatre Centre Incubator this week, written by Ms Tso, performed by her and Nick Eddie, directed by the Dora-Award winning William Yong, and featuring original music by composers Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia. The work is very much the result of Ms Tso’s longtime connection to this mythic figure. She has re-imagined the ancient mythology of the Monkey King in Wu Cheng’En’s novel through her own ancestry and lived experiences, both personal and professional: “This story was created from the heart of my imagination and journeys as an artist,” she avers. It is the first part of a trilogy reflecting her travels through the land of her birth, and will culminate with her return to her ancestral homeland in part three. “This play is mytho-biographic in that it is inspired by my life, where many worlds, from the dream one to the real one, intersect.”
Ms Tso’s The Monkey Queen is a counterpoint, told from a female perspective, to the legendary Chinese Monkey King, Her Monkey Queen is born in Canada and travels east towards China in search of her identity as a female warrior. Her journey across the Canadian landscape combines dramatic styles and storytelling aesthetics from the east and west. “With the support of . . . Ontario Arts Council grants, I wrote part one in 2010 and part two in 2015 as a storyteller, and have toured them as a one-woman storytelling show to festivals and libraries ever since,” Ms Tso explains. In 2013, she received an Ontario Arts Council theatre-development grant to adapt the first part of The Monkey Queen into a theatre play, with expanded storytelling, music and movement. “And now, these three elements have merged into a beautiful integration of storytelling with direction by William Yong.” With his triple artistic skills as a director-choreographer-dancer, the integration of the storytelling with the music-and-movement elements reflects the lyrical and poetic style of Ms Tso’s writing.
Ms Tso has worked with diverse international theatre companies for over 18 years. Most recently she performed in Les Misérables with Theatre Smith-Gilmour and at the 2017 Stratford Festival in Bakkhai and The Komagata Maru Incident. The Monkey Queen is her latest creation as Artistic Director of Red Snow Collective. The company promotes her vision for theatre that combines eastern and western storytelling art forms with music, movement and text to present works that reflect the human experience, while challenging norms. Her works have become known for highlighting female voices, stories and experiences, especially those which are often marginalized or suppressed. Her previous plays Red Snow (2012) and Comfort (2016) have brought two little-known stories of World War Two in Asia to the forefront.
While those plays are for adult audiences, The Monkey Queen is for all ages, offering a unique opportunity for young people in a multicultural diaspora to explore their own emergent identities, shaped by their cultural roots, as well as the places they have lived and are growing up in. “The story may spark their curiosity, leading them to question what’s out there and to find their own perspectives of what is truth . . . to reflect, to think, to imagine, to challenge themselves and others,” Ms Tso offers. “We still live in a very patriarchal world, and much of the stories, histories, literature and arts are dominated by the male perspective and voice. We must be active in listening to and empowering voices that have been silenced or marginalized, which the youth are part of.” She hopes that this story prompts a dialogue that leads them to explore who they are and why they must have their stories “heard, shared and respected”. In the present climate, where we are striving toward gender equality and seeing attitudes shift towards newcomers, The Monkey Queen will engage audiences of all ages, while providing deeper themes to contemplate.
With the opening upon us, Ms Tso’s anticipation is palpable. She is “most excited to have the audience there! The energy and connection between audience and artists create an exciting unspoken dialogue in storytelling and theatre, which brings both the listener and teller into a unique carpe-diem experience. And then it’s gone.” And as our conversation nears its close, Ms Tso offers an intellectual challenge to heighten the fleeting magic of the performance: “I wonder if the audience can figure out the eight Canadian landscapes/locations highlighted in the story!” Given the intimacy of the relationship of audience and artists at the Theatre Centre Incubator, these locations should be readily recognizable . . . and yet a clear part of the mystical world that Ms Tso has conjured within The Monkey Queen. “Audiences can expect a magical world of movement, punctuated by stillness, an exciting integration of text, movement, music and projection, in a fantastical playground and an epic journey.”
China’s Monkey King has inspired a formidable counterpart in The Monkey Queen – an empowering new legend to captivate young minds close to home.
News You Can Use
What: The Monkey Queen (World Premiere), written by Diana Tso; Presented by Red Snow Collective; Directed by William Yong;
Performed by Diana Tso and Nick Eddie
Music composed by Nick Storring and Brandon Valdivia; Costume Design by Robin Fisher
Who: Audiences of all ages
When: November 15 – December 2, 2018
Where: The Theatre Centre Incubator, 1115 Queen Street West, Toronto, ON
Info and Tickets: redsnowcollective.ca
© 2018 Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine