by Lynn on October 7, 2022

in The Passionate Playgoer

Live and in person at the Tarragon Theatre, Toronto, Ont. Playing until Oct. 14, 2022.

Written by Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho)

Directed by Mike Payette

Choreographed by Hanna Kiel

Set and costumes by Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart

Lighting by Arun Srinivasan

Sound and original score by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Karl Ang

Steven Hao

Anton Ling

Playwright Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) is a deeply thoughtful, graceful, inquisitive writer. These gifts are evident in such plays as Iphigenia and the Furies (On Taurian Land) and Antigone when he re-imagined two Greek dramas, and trace when he delved into his family history. Cockroach is his latest play incorporating his thoughtful style and intellect. It is also his angriest play.

Cockroach is about language, Shakespeare, fitting in, being true to one’s name, but mostly racism.  

Boy (Anton Ling) is a young man who engaged in sex with an older man for money. The older man treated Boy with contempt and disdain. Bard (Karl Ang) and Cockroach (Steven Hao) try to coach Boy into being tougher to cope with the cruel, hard, angry world of racism, condescension and disrespect.

Boy stands centre stage on Christine Ting-Huan Urquhart’s multi-leveled set, as Bard and Cockroach approach him on all fours from opposite sides of the stage, as they slowly move forward under plexiglass coverings (of sorts). Boy, as played by Anton Ling is docile, almost fragile. Karl Ang as Bard is vibrant, confident and energetic while riffing on the many and various words and sayings Bard (Shakespeare) has created in his many plays. Phrases are referenced with the play in which it first appeared. Many phrases in everyday speech came from Shakespeare and expresses countless feelings, thoughts, emotions and attitudes. There is a joy and buoyancy in Karl Ang’s playing that is so full of confidence. It’s hoped that the Bard’s confidence would affect Boy for the better. Offering the other side of the instruction is Cockroach played with vigor and a swift, deliberate monotone by Steven Hao. Cockroach represents the despicable phrases, words and pejorative comments that a person of East Asian descent has heard from racists who are full of invective. Those of various minorities who see Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho’s) dense, complex play will be mindful of their own experiences with racism and the despicable phrases that racists use to describe them. One thinks of the many condescending terms that reference insects, vermin and filth as racists hurl their insults. Cockroach speaks to the negative East Asian experience. Cockroach notes the tradition of dropping the East Asian name for an ‘Anglicized’ ‘Christian’ name to fit in better with western society. Interestingly playwright Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) has gone the opposite way in the last few years—putting his East Asian name first and his anglicized name in brackets.

Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) is such a gracefully intellectual writer, he delicately guides his audience to consider various sides of the story and the power of language. Words with various meanings including ones that are condescending and racist are put under a microscope. Language has changed over time. Do we cancel words that might be offensive in one instance, if they are used with another meaning in another instance? Cockroach references the phrase “chink in the wall” from A Midsummer Night’s Dream. In the play ‘chink’ means a crevice or hole in the wall—two characters are to kiss through the ‘chink’ in the wall. But the word is also a racial slur towards East Asians, and was believed to have first been used in the 1850s, perhaps 300 years after Shakespeare used it for another purpose. When Bard is aware of the pejorative aspect of “chink in the wall” he quickly says “change it.” Just as quickly as Bard makes up words and phrases, he can cancel them as well.

Many words have been retired because their original meaning has been overtaken by another meaning. In the early 20th century, ‘gay’ meant lighthearted and carefree. That meaning has been put to rest since ‘gay’ is now used to describe a homosexual man.

Ho Ka Kei (Jeff Ho) in his quiet and firm way, makes us ponder all sides of the language issues in his play, as well as racism in all its ugliness. Cockroach is dense, complex and challenging. A lot of information and ideas come at the audience in a decidedly fast pace. Director Mike Payette has deliberately paced both Karl Ang as Bard and Steven Hao as Cockroach to deliver their lines almost at breakneck speed. I’m not sure of the wisdom of this directorial decision. Another thing to ponder.

Tarragon Theatre presents:

Plays until: Oct. 14, 2022.

Running Time: 90 minutes, approx. (No intermission)

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