Because our impressions of live performance are comprised so much from its human elements, we often overlook the relevance of place; a performing arts term for the aesthetic, cultural and political circumstances of a production. Many plays focus on or are inspired by historical events, but do not necessarily consider the implications of that choice. ThreeWoods Playwright's Smoking With Grandma is not one of those plays.
The show, as relayed by Maia Lee (Katherine Leung), is about Lee's grandma (Angel SY Chan) and her life in the refugee camp on Tiu Keng Leng, a remote island in the Hong Kong bay area. The settlement was created for former Kuomintang (KMT) party members who fled China after defeat at the hands of the Communist Party of China (CPC), and ultimately demolished in deference to China when they resumed control of Hong Kong in 1996. The story tells of Grandma Lee's arrival in Hong Kong, her challenging life in the settlement, and finally her anguish over months of delayed resettlement by the Hong Kong government — told partly in Chinese, with projected subtitles by SY Chan and broken English by Leung.
The staging is minimalistic yet evocative, with naught but two chairs, a few stage lights, some projected archival photos of the settlement, and an old Chinese tobacco pipe. The music is equally restrained, yet atmospheric, composed and performed by the awesomely-named music group Coelacanth. Leung also gracefully performs motions of interpretative dance that echo through SY Chan's passages, providing some textural elements that perhaps allude to an important music box of Grandma Lee's. Leung's character functions more as a structural narration point, and the focus given to SY Chan's Grandma pays off. It is a remarkable performance in a foreign language that manages to be so diverse – with SY Chan effortlessly ranging from the earnestness of a young refugee girl to the anxiety of an old lady not wanting to leave another home – and also subtle, with a striking silhouette cast long against a wall.
Smoking With Grandma deftly conjures its 'place', reconstructing what was overwritten by history through speech, song, smoke and memory. The play is a unique and authentic study into the refugee experience and lends a persuasive voice to those displaced and marginalised by conflict. It's also just a beautifully produced play that is powerfully affecting, even when speaking in an unfamiliar language, a testament to the performers' abilities, writer director Cathy SK Lam's vision, and the rest of the production team's efforts.