Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.
Many children of Asian descent, driven to achieve their parents’ high expectations, will recognize themselves in Marie Barlizo’s play Lucky. First performed at the 2018 Montreal Fringe Festival, Lucky draws from the story of Jennifer Pan, the Vietnamese-Canadian woman from Markham, Ontario who is serving prison time for the 2010 kill-for-hire murder of her immigrant parents. A workshop production of Lucky, directed by Sophie Gee, is now on stage at the Factory Theatre Studio, part of the 2019 Next Stage Theatre Festival, curated by the Toronto Fringe.
“When I first read the Toronto Life article ‘Jennifer Pan’s Revenge’ by Karen K. Ho, I was completely struck with what Pan did,” Ms Barlizo recalls. “But I was also amazed at how much her story resonated with the experiences of many Asian immigrant children who feel trapped by the cultural expectations set by their families.” Like Pan, they resort to lying to their parents to get around a strict upbringing. In Pan’s case, after failing to meet her parents’ expectations, she “spun a life of deception by forging report cards and scholarship letters: she was desperate to keep up with the charade because she was terrified to lose everything that meant anything to her. When she could no longer keep up with her lies, she hired a hit on her parents.”
On reading the article, Ms Barlizo also connected with Pan’s story personally. She, too, had failed to meet her parents’ expectations and then lied about it: “I am the oldest child in my family. In Filipino families, the eldest child can be burdened with heavy responsibilities and high expectations—ones that I carried on my shoulders. It is natural to want to rebel from this upbringing, so I did.” Like many Asian immigrant kids in her shoes, she had grown up a “pleaser” who prided herself with “being perfect and excelling in school”. But when she was in Cegep (Grade 12 in Quebec), her grades began to slip. This downward trend continued until university when she “flunked out.” The effect was crippling: “I was devastated when I realized I was never going to be a doctor, and I was ashamed to admit it to myself, or anyone else.”
Ultimately, seeing a therapist helped her to look at the big picture and realize that choosing a different path “wouldn’t be the end of the world”. Still, having hidden the situation as best she could, she admits that confronting her parents with this truth was the most difficult thing she ever had to do in her life. She had correctly anticipated their disappointment and refusal to support her choice to be a writer. She realized right then that she would have to find her own way to support her dreams . . . “but when I finally did, I never looked back because, for the first time in my life, I felt free.”
Since this reckoning, her hardwon freedom has yielded significant success as a writer. Born in the Philippines and raised in Montreal, Ms Barlizo is the first visible minority to graduate from the National Theatre School’s Playwriting Program. She also holds a Master of Fine Arts degree in Creative Writing from UBC. Her writing has extended to television, as well as the stage. Her personal experience as a “model minority”, as well as Pan’s, inform Lucky, which received its first workshop production at the Montreal Fringe Festival last year.
Lucky centres on Nina (Katharine King), who is a young Filipino student who cannot meet her parents’ high expectations. An encounter with Sylvain (Christian Jadah), a former skinhead haunted by his violent past, sparks a thrilling plan that could change both their lives . . .at least until he realizes that she is not who she claims to be. The play examines the ways in which cultural expectations shape identity and self-esteem, and how fear of the “other” affects the perception and treatment of immigrants. In an effort to broaden the resonance of Pan’s story, Ms Barlizo has transposed the plot to Montreal’s Filipino community. During the creation of the play, she also consulted Christian Picciolini, a former neo-Nazi who now advocates for peace through his organization, Life After Hate.
As noted, Ms Barlizo finds the circumstances of the Jennifer Pan story to be simply “incredible”. She marvels that Pan was somebody who would do anything to hide who she really was, “even . . . kill for it.” Yet Ms Barlizo did not want to write a documentary play. Instead, she wanted to explore artistically what drives a person to do such an “unfathomable act”, and whether or not it is possible to “break free from it and become who you want to be.” To be precise, “I wrote Lucky because I want to open up the discussion about the extreme pressures we, in the Asian community, put on our children and the effects on their mental health.”
Growing up, Ms Barlizo suffered from anxiety and sadness that were rooted in her fear of failure and of disappointing the people she loved. As a result, she played it safe for a long time. “But throughout my life, I’ve learned from these experiences and challenges, which have given me the courage to grow into the person and artist I am today.” That said, it took her a long time to realize the need to make choices that were right for her, so she is sympathetic towards young people who might be experiencing similar pressures. She recommends talking to a person of trust, and, if possible, seeking out a professional counsellor. The bottom line is easy to say but hard to do: “It is necessary to be patient with yourself and understand that it’s okay to disappoint people sometimes.”
With the Montreal production, Ms Barlizo confirmed that Asian/immigrant audience members understood the main character, Nina, and her actions in the play. She was less certain whether other audience members could sympathize with such a “challenging or difficult Person of Color—especially an Asian woman who in stories can be stereotyped as a dragon lady.” So with this second iteration, she has worked hard to create more multi-dimensionality and complexity in Nina’s character: “Lucky is an important but challenging story, and I am excited to see how it continues to evolve.”
Ultimately, what drives Ms Barlizo’s writing (and re-writing) is her belief in the transformative power of stories to inspire people to change. Her sincere hope is that more Asian-Canadian stories are told on stages and in film and television.“Growing up in Canada, I rarely saw an Asian person or woman on our screens or in theatre,” she notes. “I believe when young BIPOC [Black Indigenous Person of Colour] see themselves and their experiences reflected, they feel acknowledged that their stories are just as important as everyone else’s.” Even more critically, “they might also be inspired to be brave and do what they couldn’t imagine before.”
Fortunately, until January 20, Lucky offers Toronto audiences a concise, gripping – and insightful – glimpse into a widespread Asian immigrant experience that needs discussion.
News You Can Use
What: Lucky written by Marie Barlizo; Dramaturgy by Matt McGeachy; Stage Management by Emlyn van Bruinswaardt; Tattoo Design by Zoe Roux; Directed by Sophie Gee
Performed by Katharine King (Nina) and Christian Jadah (Sylvain)
Who: Audiences 18 years and older
When: On stage until January 20, 2019; Run Time: 75 minutes (no intermission)
Where: Factory Theatre – Studio, 125 Bathurst St, Toronto, ON M5V 2R2
Info and Tickets: https://fringetoronto.com/next-stage/show/lucky
© 2019 Arpita Ghosal Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine