Tita Jokes and 49th Day showcase the stories of fierce females

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Sesaya specializes in music and arts education.

L-R: Alia Rasul, Ellie Posadas, Isabel Kanaan, Maricris Rivera, Ann Paula Bautista, Belinda Corpuz; Photographer: Martin Nicolas; Stylist: Cathleen Jayne Calica

Interested in spending an hour or two with some fierce women? 

Whether your hope is to laugh or be moved, two shows – Tita Jokes and 49th Day – at Toronto’s Next Stage Theatre Festival hosted by Toronto Fringe at the Factory Theatre have got you covered.

When it comes to Tita Jokes by Tita Collective, I feel like I’m the last one to get in on it. It’s been on my radar since last summer, when I heard about its run at the 2019 Toronto Fringe. Not only did it sell out its run; it won both the Patron’s Pick and The Second City Outstanding New Comedy Award. And even though the Tita Collective went on to perform Tita Jokes at The Second City and the Toronto Sketch Comedy Festival last fall (where it was the 2019 Steamwhistle Producers’ Pick), I was never able to see it. So when a press release in early September heralded the return of Tita Jokes at the January Next Stage Festival, I marked my calendar.

Well, rumours of the show’s greatness are no exaggeration. Tita Jokes is a unique and unforgettable musical comedy smash. The show is created and performed by the 6-member Tita Collective – Ann Paula Bautista, Belinda Corpuz, Isabel Kanaan, Ellie Posadas, Alia Rasul, and Maricris Rivera – who explore different media to tell stories about the Filipinx diaspora. And the show is a loving tribute to the co-stars’ culture, heritage – and to the strong Filipinas in their lives. Brilliantly combining sketch comedy with music and dance to convey the different ways that titas show their love and affection, Tita Jokes also depicts how they support one another to move past disappointments, struggles and heartaches.

Though I was late to the tita party, I will gladly pile on with my praise. The show is hilarious, poignant, and accessible to audiences of all backgrounds. And the Collective’s rendition of Lady Marmalade’s “Voulez-vous couchez avec moi?” in Tagalog is itself worth the price of admission – though it is just the beginning of a series of high-energy, guffaw-inducing sketches that follow it. Audiences will recognize the serious topics that the collective satirizes. There is the self-absorbed mother who heaps guilt on her grown-up daughters’ milestones because she regards them as a sign of her impending uselessness. A speaker is repeatedly interrupted with racist remarks veiled as compliments of her “cuteness”. Titas heap judgement encoded in their withering comments about community members during church services. Mothers have differing standards for their sons and daughters; first-generation offspring must negotiate the delicate balance of existing in two cultures; and the networking currency of chismis (gossip) is potent enough to avenge crime. Through it all, the Collective celebrates their culture, busts the nurse-and-nanny stereotype, and makes clear in no uncertain times that not liking Bruno Mars is a relationship dealbreaker. 

The 6-member collective is uniformly strong, and Tita Jokes is fast-paced, warmhearted, and expertly executed, with razor-sharp timing. Even Music Director Ayaka Kinugawa gets some well-earned time to show off her considerable piano skills. Much respect to director Tricia Hagoriles for her tight direction of these megawatt artists who shine as a true ensemble. They keep pace without ever upstaging each other, which is not easy to do. With minimal props and effective lighting, the show benefits from its firm focus on the triple-threat performers and the rock-solid strength of the writing. I simply cannot wait to see Tita Jokes again. Meanwhile, I will await their new podcast “Chika Chika with the Titas” to help me pass the time. 

athena kaitlin trinh and Diana Tso in 49th Day; photo by Zeeshan Safdar

I knew far less about Theatre Artaud’s 49th Day. After a moving land acknowledgement, which leads directly into the play’s action – and its central questions – we find ourselves in a cemetery in Việt Nam. A flustered young woman arrives. As she attempts to make offerings and perform rituals, she struggles with the incense, the movements, and what to say. She curses each misstep. Gradually, we understand. She is a granddaughter clumsily attempting Googled rituals  in order to connect with her deceased grandmother – and, more broadly, with half-memories and a cultural heritage that she does not fully understand. 

Despite the imperfection and self-consciousness of her ritual, there is power in the impulse to connect. As symbolized through simple but stylized sound effects and lighting, she pierces the veil and summons her grandmother for a, well, spirited exchange. The show’s author and star athena kaitlin trinh is vulnerable yet tenacious as the granddaughter in quest of a continuum to  bind her future to her familial and cultural past. Diana Tso channels an inscrutable otherworldliness as the conjured grandmother, who is by turns combative, shrill, wise and coyly comedic. 

The actors’ passion for this material is clear, and at its core, their exchanges are beautiful, poetic and important. But brace yourself. As directed by Rouvan Silogix, they are also unrelenting. There is tremendous terrain to be covered in 60 short minutes, and the fast-paced exchanges and meditative soliloquies of these two characters are the verbal vehicle we travel in. Details of the grandmother and granddaughter’s stories must be recovered. The universal quest to understand your story – the perils of forgetting or not knowing – must be considered. The influence of representation on how you respond to that story must also be considered. As a result, you may be out of breath by the play’s close.

In the end, you will find less laughter but no less fierceness in 49th Day than Tita Jokes – and an equally life-affirming, thought-provoking take on the mystery and urgency of embracing where you come from.

News You Can Use

What:Tita Jokes created and performed by Tita Collective: Ann Paula Bautista, Belinda Corpuz, Isabel Kanaan, Ellie Posadas, Alia Rasul, Maricris Rivera
Creative: Director: Tricia Hagoriles│Musical Director: Ayaka Kinugawa│Stage Manager: Justine Cargo│Choreographer: Chantelle Mostacho│Animation: Solis Animation

What: 49th Day created by athena kaitlin trinh│Director: Rouvan Silogix│ Producer: Angela Sun and Theatre Artaud│Dramaturg: Jeff Ho│Stage Manager: Lily Chan│Scenographer: Waleed Ansari│Sound Designer: Gloria Mok│Audio Describer: Kat Germain
Performed by athena kaitlin trinh and Diana Tso

When: On stage until January 19, 2020

Where: Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: torontofringe.com

© Arpita Ghosal and Scott Sneddon, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

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