trace: How Jeff Ho's mother created a diva - Drew Rowsome - My Gay Toronto - 416 Scene
trace: How Jeff Ho's mother created a diva by DREW ROWSOME 7 November 2017
"I'm wearing a lot of hats but all the pressure is my own," says Jeff Ho of his one-man show trace. "I've done one solo show before but not to this extent in terms of length. And not in terms of responsibility, being the writer, the composer and the pianist and the performer."
Aside from two pianos, Ho will be alone on stage. But there will be a large cast. "The conceit of the play is that we hear all of the women's text and every other character who's a man, and every other periphery character, speaks through the piano," says Ho. "I write out the men's scenes and then we find the music to match the intention of the words. And we have to figure out how to dialogue with the piano, make it the other actor. There are sections that are composed but I draw from classical pieces that I've grown up with or are very influential to my life. Or are songs that my mother loved."
Ho's mother is central to trace. "A lot of the writing was done through interviews with my own family, specifically my mother," says Ho. "And the show is gratefully dedicated to her. She has been my biggest resistance in pursuing a life in the arts, and she has also been my biggest fuel and fire. So my mom is that first wall and learning that her rejection, if I can surpass that, there is no rejection that I cannot handle. It's all because of her. But it made my life a living hell when I was a teenager."
trace is concerned with generations of living hell and triumphing over it. "Originally it was more focussed on just two generations of women with sort of a gap in the middle. I focussed on my great-grandmother and then on my mom. To play Ophelia in Prince Hamlet I drew a lot on my mom. The shit she had to deal with with men back in Hong Kong, the misogyny there. And then being a single mom taking her two sons to Canada, that being close to the earth and working like a dog to keep the family alive."
Ho's great-grandmother was the other impetus for trace. "My great-grandmother had two sons and during her trip from China to Hong Kong, when the Japanese invaded, when she ran, something happened to the youngest son. He disappeared. And great-grandma just simply never spoke of him again. Never mentioned his name. It was only on her deathbed, 'Where's my younger son?' In those moments we realized there's a missing family member. And then that parallels with my own mother, disappearing from the rest of her family, taking her two sons to Canada, and then I ran away from home at 16 to pursue a life in the theatre. Now it's not the same, I'm not equivocating theatre to the war, but there is a void when a child leaves the family. So, history repeated itself in our bloodline."
Even the musical component of trace owes a debt to Ho's mother. "The sort of irony of it is that my mother got me started in piano when I was five," says Ho. "And she was very, very rigorous in terms of practice. At the height of my classical training back in high school, I would practice three to five hours a day on top of my schoolwork and work with my three math tutors. She insisted that I finish all the way to the highest level of certification at the Royal Conservatory of Music. She pushed me."
That pushing came in handy as trace began to take form. "As I tried to figure out the structure, how do we put a hundred years of memories, with gaps and time jumping, how do we make it fit? And we discovered that logic wasn't the right way to approach it, but musically that was something we could carry. The stories, the emotions, came like waves, flowed like music, it had its own logic. Even now in the rehearsal room, director Nina Lee Aquino [James and the Giant Peach, Banana Boys, Scarberia] has a metronome by her side, and if she feels that 'You're not respecting your music, you're not respecting your own words,' she'll just put the metronome on. And the funny thing is that the words, the engine of the words, matches up, comes through the rhythm. It became a way to piece the words together."
Ho and his mother have reached an understanding. "We're at that point now where we realize the hurt we've done to each other. But I learned through working on trace, I acknowledge and I honour my family the way that I know, which is not what she expects. But there is one way I can acknowledge and affirm, thank her, and that's through art. I'm coming to realize that I can only do this thanks to her, especially this piece with the classical music, with the acting, with the writing, it's everything she invested into me as a child."
Ho's mother may have hated the idea of Ho attempting a theatrical career but, "That's the funny thing about my mother," says Ho, "she's more open to my sexuality than to my career. She has never once batted an eyelid at my partner. She's always invited him in like her own son. That's a privilege that I have, neither my mother, nor my father or my brother, have ever shamed me with any sort of homophobic attitude at all. It's always just been, your boyfriend will be part of the family, is part of the family. Isn't that weird?"
But the tradition of a gay man and a piano as entertainment goes back through Elton John to Liberace and beyond. Ho has a more modern reference. "Today Nina said, 'You get to Mariah the hell out of that piano movement.' I was like, 'I'll take that.' As the instrumentalist, I'm trying very much to speak through the piano. So, yeah, I'm trying to be a diva."
trace runs from Sat, Nov 11 to Sun, Dec 3 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. factorytheatre.ca