Ma-Anne Dionisio brings her knack for playing strong women to LADY SUNRISE

Ma-Anne Dionisio and Lindsay Wu in Lady Sunrise; photo: Joseph Michael Photography

Ma-Anne Dionisio is currently performing in Marjorie Chan’s Lady Sunrise at Factory Theatre, directed by Artistic Director Nina Lee Aquino. It’s a world premiere, and, despite the blurb in the press release, I can’t picture what to expect. When I ask Dionisio, who plays the role of Tawny Ku, she tells me I can “expect to see the intersection of six characters as they navigate through their personal life experiences and relationships to money.” This economical synopsis renders me less clear – yet more curious – so I book tickets to the next performance.  

What I experience is the gripping, self-narrated stories of six Asian-Canadian women and their perceptions of status and success in Vancouver and Richmond, BC.  It’s 2005, an era of peak wealth after the Handover of Hong Kong and before the 2007-8 Financial Crisis. They prowl up and down Camellia Koo’s striking set, which is a series of diagonally ascending risers trimmed with sparkling metallic black fringes. The risers evoke by turns a highrise building, a casino, hilly urban streets – and even the metaphorical and precarious climb to the “top”. These multi-levels are the platforms on which their interactions take place  and their fates rise and fall. 

The plot centres mostly on the relationship between beauty-queen-turned-model Penny (Lindsay Wu), who lives off her male relationships, and Dionisio’s Tawny Ku, the rich “auntie” whom she also depends on.  Prudent investments in condo development have made Ku a powerfully rich woman. Her finances are managed by her tough-as-nails banker Wong (Rosie Simon), who has climbed the corporate ladder to become a success in the cutthroat, male-dominated banking industry. Ku and Penny’s relationship is mirrored by Sherry (Belinda Corpuz), a newly-emigrated, young girl from whom Charmaine (Louisa Zhu), called “Aunty”, profits. Finally, working mother Li (Zoé Doyle) runs a blackjack table in a casino. 

The characters’ individual stories are told in a series of direct-address monologues. The play is at its intense best when their stories overlap and their lives intersect. Direct interaction is rare – more often, their interaction is distanced and filtered, with the characters on different levels of the set, and one telling the story of the encounter. Lady Sunrise is inspired by Sunrise (1936)originally written by Chinese playwright Cao Yu, which centres on the degradation of society and moral standards in Shanghai, after the economic collapse of the 1930s. Not content to simply update the play to a contemporary time and place, Chan tells it wholly from the perspective of its female characters. It becomes a story of women struggling to gain or retain power and acquire agency. Though frequently mentioned, men are entirely absent from the stage action, yet they loom as oppressive, repressive  fixtures that the six women must push against or accommodate. 

Audiences familiar with Dionisio’s long body of musical-theatre work might be surprised that Tawny Ku is a non-singing role. She is most famous for her depiction of Kim in the first Canadian production of Miss Saigon at age 17 and then in several productions worldwide. Last year, she earned a Dora Mavor Moore Award for her portrayal of Diana Goodman, a mother with bipolar disorder in Musical Stage Company production of Next to Normal. Asked about this departure from her usual singing roles, Dionisio admits that she has been “keen to work with Marjorie and Nina”, and that her excitement for this production was to “be part of the process of creating and building something new”. Over the years, Dionisio has shown a knack for portraying strong female characters. Of the imperious Tawny Ku, she offers no judgment: “I think that for the most part, if you succeed in presenting a character’s truth, it is very likely that the character becomes relatable in some way, shape, or form, even if only by association. This piece most certainly offers a lot to process and think about. And because we as people are all varied in our perceptions and comprehensions, it undoubtedly inspires discussions and reflections.” 

That said, the play has not come without its challenges. For Dionisio, the biggest has been developing the mental, emotional and physical stamina for it. “It’s been a real test in presence,” she muses. The show, which is 100 minutes long and performed without a scheduled intermission, is like a train: “once it starts, it keeps going. You better be ready and onboard before it goes, because otherwise, there’s no catching up. It leaves you behind.” So how does she look after her emotions? Through the years, she has learned many ways to “protect my heart.” She sees the ability to distance oneself from the trauma of a character as itself an important skill to practice. “Meditation and gratitude have been key to maintaining balance. Not to mention play and the ability to stay light-hearted. One can never take one’s self too seriously.”

Lady Sunrise is a rapid journey with 6 compelling women who take their situations very seriously. So these may be useful words for rapt, out-of-breath audiences to remember.

Zoe Doyle, Rosie Simon, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Louisa Zhu and Belinda Corpuz in Factory Theatre’s Lady Sunrise; photo: Joseph Michael Photography

News You Can Use

What: Lady Sunrise, written by Marjorie Chan | Directed by Nina Lee Aquino |Assistant Director: Natasha Mumba | Set Designer: Camellia Koo | Costume Designer: Jackie Chau | Lighting Designer: Michelle Ramsay | Sound Designer & Composer: Debashis Sinha | Dramaturge: Matt McGeachy

Cast: Belinda Corpuz, Ma-Anne Dionisio, Zoé Doyle, Rosie Simon, Lindsay Wu, and Louisa Zhu

When: On stage until March 8, 2020; running time: 100 minutes (no intermission)

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

Info and Tickets: factorytheatre.ca 

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2020

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.