Be-Longing embraces double-jointed identities

screen shot from The Frank Theatre's Be-Longing

When KhattieQ talks, you listen: she’s not just showing off, she just means it.

A lot of the work in Be-Longing is skilled. And, although not everything in the piece succeeds for me, there’s an underlying integrity to it that makes several passages compelling.

Created by Fay Nass, Meghna Halder, and Sammy Chien, Be-Longing is about the double dislocation — some might say added perspective — of being both queer and part of a diaspora. One of the great pleasures of the piece is hearing not just English, but also Arabic, Spanish, and Cantonese. (English subtitles are provided.)

In its form, Be-Longing is experimental. Its structure is associative rather than narratively linear, but we still get a progression: early life in a home country, discovery of sexuality, difficulty in reconciling that sexuality with society, arrival in Canada, and the daunting project of forming a multifaceted identity here.

The Frank Theatre Company, which is queer, has partnered with the video artists of Chimerik to produce this digital presentation and the visual results are often arresting: in one sequence, we see the four actors from above, then, as they move, they leave traces of themselves behind, discrete ghostly figures that multiply until they fill the screen.

I had quite an uneven response to the written material. Some of it I found drily self-conscious. At one point, Jackson Tse’s character speaks about his obsession with dislocation. The monologue starts off promisingly: “I carry my exile with me and the memory of it, like a strange heirloom, and cold misshapen thing.” But the writer overstays their welcome: “Examine it. Fits of self-flagellation. Put it down. Let it collect dust on the shelf. Don’t leave it for long. Can’t help but pick it up.” See what I mean? Through repetition and abstraction — as opposed to sensuality and specificity — the writer diminishes a promising idea.

There’s also some “poetic” nonsense, including meaningless rearrangements of phrases: “Show yourself again. Again yourself show.” Stop it.

But other passages worked extremely well for me. KhattieQ, for instance, tells a story in which she falls in love with a mermaid/pretty girl in her town. I was so there for the mermaid! This story is crammed with sensual detail and narrative tension: the two young women are in the car together, you can almost feel their breath, but will they ever kiss?

I was also swept away by a story that Baraka Rhamani tells. Again, it’s the specificity that grabs you. A student at a Catholic girls’ school, the narrator justifies her lesbian longing: “I liked flirting, I told myself. And girls and sad-eyed nuns were all that was around … And they were all so lovely.”

It helps that the acting in Be-Longing is strong. some of it is excellent. I have learned that it’s a very good idea towatch anything Alexandra Lainfiesta is in. Her soul is simply present in her face. When her character weeps, you can’t help but cry with her. Similarly, KhattieQ is simply, warmly available:  there’s no fanfare; there’s just a whole human being right there. I’m a new fan.

My family became settlers in Canada one and two generations ago, so I’m sure I’m missing nuance. Still, for me, there’s not a lot of new thematic content in Be-Longing. In the theatre, I first encountered the celebration of hyphenated identities in David Henry Hwang’s F.O.B. The resolution in that show is that the protagonist can be both Chinese and American; it’s not a case of either/or. Be-Longing reaches a similar conclusion in its embrace of in-betweenness. That doesn’t make the conclusion invalid, of course; it’s just not that surprising. F.O.B. won an Obie in 1980.

Still, these companies and artists deserve our support. They are honest — and skilled — seekers.

BE-LONGING Created by Fay Nass, Meghna Haldar, and Sammy Chien. Produced by the frank theatre company in partnership with Chimerik. Viewed online on Wednesday, December 16. Running until December 20. Tickets(sliding scale).

 

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About Colin Thomas

Colin Thomas is a Vancouver-based editor, an award-winning playwright, and an established theatre critic. Colin helps writers unlock the full potential of their novels, short stories, screenplays, and children's books.

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