Review of Ka Shue (Letters Home)


Originally published on Theatreview, reveiwed by Li Dan 16 Oct at Lawson Field Theatre, Gisborne. 

Ka-Shue (Letters Home) is showing at the Lawson Field Theatre as part of the Te Tairawhiti Arts Festival. The play is described in publicity as an “epic story of love, laughter and loss, and spans one hundred years through the eyes of a Chinese family struggling to settle in Aotearoa.”

I do not know what to expect as I have never been to a one person play before. As it turns out, Lynda Chanwai-Earle is not alone on stage. She is accompanied by an amazing young musician, Nikau Wi Neera, and the two work seamlessly together to produce a moving, thoughtful and provocative piece of art. The writer and performer of this play is Lynda Chanwai-Earle, who is a descendant of a Chinese family in New Zealand. The show first appeared on stage in Wellington in 1996 as the first authentically New Zealand–Chinese play for mainstream audiences.

Lynda Chanwai-Earle is a brilliant performer who transitions seamlessly between five different characters across three generations of her Chinese family: Jacqui, the daughter who meets a boy in Hong Kong and naively follows him to Beijing just before the Tian’anmen Square event; Abbie, Jacqui’s mother, who first arrived in Wellington as a baby and later on rebelled against her Chinese family and married a Pakeha husband; Por Por, Jacqui’s grandmother, and the step-mother who brings baby Abbie to New Zealand; Gung Gung, Jacqui’s grandfather; Lady Li, the ghost and also Abbie’s mother.

I can easily tell the different characters Lynda portrays just by listening to her use of voice, accents, minimal props and the accompanying sound track. The music is a different language, beautifully woven into the story by the use of traditional Chinese, Western and Māori instruments.

I appreciate the authenticity and simplicity of the stage set-up. Upstage centre is a white-faced Beijing Opera Imperial concubine mask hanging on a long piece of red cloth, indicating the legend of the infamous Concubine Li, who ‘Lady Li’ named herself after. There is one wooden chair on each side of the stage with several small props that set the scene of an authentic Chinese family with a hint of western influence. A glass of cognac is Gung Gung’s favourite drink and he enjoys playing Majong.

The story has an ambitious goal of showing one hundred years of history within an hour. The parts that touch me the most are the letters Jacqui sends home to her Por Por and the recordings Abbie sends to Jacqui. I wish there could be more story development within the three amazing female characters to show the depth of their relationship and character development.

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