In 49th Day by athena kaitlin trinh, produced by Theatre ARTaud at the 2020 Next Stage Theatre Festival, a young woman (trinh) travels from Canada to Vietnam to fulfill the ritual requirements for her deceased grandmother (Diana Tso). The titular number of days refers to the length of time rice and offerings are brought to the altar for the dead.
Swearing up a storm and wrecking the ritual order, granddaughter is torn between a desire to honour her grandmother and to rage at her for her departure. She’s desperate to have one final, parting moment of connection with a woman and a culture both ever-present and distant to her. Highly specific yet universal, her story is a familiar one to many grandchildren of immigrants: she has Chinese and Vietnamese heritage, but admits her limited knowledge of those cultures’ languages and histories runs from rudimentary to almost non-existent, respectively.
Director Rouvan Silogix and scenographer Waleed Ansari do an excellent job of filling the space visually and dramatically in a minimalist way. The Factory Studio allows for sudden appearances and exits from the corridor, side door, and even within the audience. The simple set, with bags of rice, simulated rubble, and a single bare, ominously red bulb dangling from the ceiling, is evocative of both the loss the main character feels and the culture to which she’s returned.
The sound (Gloria Mok) and lighting design (Waleed Ansari) creates suspense with recordings of slightly distorted songs that sound like they’re coming from a distance, and atmospheric, changeable lighting. The bright red bulb, colours projected on the back wall, and a general, contemplative dimness add an eerie sensibility. The supernatural feel makes grandmother’s appearance, which brings both knowledge and catharsis, seem inevitable.
The script has an intense, often haunting beauty to it. The highlights are the scenes between granddaughter and grandmother, both as they plunge into the matriarch’s past and her flight from war, and as they share a series of frustrating but relatable arguments about the younger generation’s decision to assimilate into white culture. Even the opening land acknowledgement feels less perfunctory than most, woven almost seamlessly into the rest of the play in its delivery and theme of memory.
Other moments of the semi-linear narrative are almost like slam poetry, as trinh declaims on subjects of oppression, the loss of heritage, inherited trauma, and the particular misery of forgetting rather than never having known at all. These acidic sermons feel personal, a kaleidoscope of anger; they’re fiery and aimed straight to the gut.
When she delivers her lines, trinh tends to get stuck in a very repetitive vocal cadence, particularly when she hits these heightened, poetic monologues. This means that some ideas may get lost in the wash of sound. The monologues are pitched at a similar, constant emotional intensity from the very beginning, and most words end on a verbal fall, like the crest of a wave that keeps breaking downward. I found it aurally distracting; once I heard it, I couldn’t stop. I felt like more variation in intensity would actually up the stakes.
That being said, the interplay between trinh and Tso is lovely, and does vary the tenor of the hour. Tso does a great job as the no-nonsense grandmother with hidden torments, going from melodramatic, manipulative crying to complete calm as soon as she gets her way, and radiating tough love for her family. She is able to seem simultaneously young and wizened. Watching the two of them play, sing, and eat together feels like home, and engenders a tremendous feeling of generational loss in her absence.
The show played to a sold-out crowd on opening night, and Next Stage only lasts 12 days, not 49; if you want tickets, you should act fast. A sustained cry from the heart, it’s a thought-provoking piece that never lets up.
- Next Stage Theatre Festival performances are being held at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St.)
- Single tickets are $18 (tickets purchased online or by phone are subject to a $3 fee). Money-saving passes are also available. See website for ticketing information.
- Showtimes on the 49th Day listing.
- The show includes mature language, and the use of incense.
Photo of athena kaitlin trinh by Tanja Tiziana