Sometimes, when you see a show, you know that an artist is offering you a personal gift. That’s what it’s like with Maki Yi’s Suitcase Stories. The script isn’t perfect, but both the play and production are important, skilled in many ways—and heartfelt.
In her solo text, Yi recounts her experience as a would-be immigrant from South Korea to Canada. The opening movement, in which she documents her first impressions of our country—including her perceptions of what race means here—is disarming. When she arrives at Pearson International Airport, she is shocked: “I thought I came to the West, and the West means to me white people” she admits, before acknowledging that she also expected to see some people of colour, but they would be servants and gang members. Admitting that she has learned most of what she thinks she knows about Canada from American movies, Yi turns a fun-house mirror on us.
Director Colleen Lanki’s presentation of the material is charmingly, deliberately naïve. Throughout the performance, Yi drags a little wheeled suitcase behind her and everything she needs to tell her story comes out of it. When she heads to Regina from Toronto by bus, she pulls out a toy Greyhound and, as her journey takes her across the Canadian Shield and she is amazed by the endless forest, a long ribbon of green trails and trails and trails out the back of the bus. “I have never been this scared of nature,” she confesses. “I realize how tiny my existence is.”
In a deft theatrical stroke, Yi uses chalk to write and draw all over the black walls and floor of Pacific Theatre. In a sequence in which she falls in love with theatre while a student at the University of Regina, she draws herself a little stage, complete with curtains, and boldly takes her place on it. Later, as she tries to establish a career as an artist of colour, she fears that, in falling in love with theatre, she has taken up with a lover who doesn’t love her back.
This deft combination of observation and theatricality works especially well in the opening movement of Suitcase Stories. There comes a time in every tale, however, when you want the adventure to begin, and that’s the point at which Suitcase Stories starts to falter. The goal of Yi’s character is clear: she wants to become a permanent resident. But the playwright offers us so few details about why she left Korea and why she wants to stay in Canada, that her story isn’t nearly as resonant as it could be. In the audience, it’s easy to appreciate Yi’s frustration with the bureaucratic absurdities of the Canadian immigration system, but it’s hard to get a visceral sense of exactly why she’s so desperate to stay here. She speaks in abstract terms about the oppression of the Confucian patriarchy in Korea, but it isn’t until a reveal very late in the action that she describes the effect that the Confucian patriarchy had on her mental health. For listeners, that’s too long to wait for an understanding of emotional motivation and, even then, details are scarce.
One might argue that my cultural biases, including my expectations of storytelling are blinding me, of course. And I must say that there were times in Suitcase Stories, in which the sheer force of desperation and sorrow pushed through the determinedly upbeat demeanor of Yi’s stage persona. In those moments, I was moved to tears.
I’m glad that we have this artist among us.
SUITCASE STORIES By Maki Yi. Directed by Colleen Lanki. A Pacific Theatre production at Pacific Theatre on Saturday, October 29. Continues until November 12.
Get tickets at 604-731-5518 or go to www.pacifictheatre.org