Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
When Motherlanded first premiered in 2016, it benefited greatly from direction and dramaturgy by Twin Cities-based actor Sun Mee Chomet. This time, Ms. Gay takes on the full load, updating her text and serving as her own director. She also choreographed the graceful and compelling dance sequences, and even devised her own costume. On all counts, she does extraordinary work.
While awaiting the start of Motherlanded, the audience hears traditional Chinese and hip-hop music alternating over the sound system, looking over a mostly bare stage with a bolt of red silk cloth spread diagonally from left to right, front to back of the stage. The play begins with photos projected on a large screen spanning the rear wall of the stage, showing Ms. Gay as a toddler, though all the stages of life, a photo-album preview of the story that will be told to us. The actor appears, and with clear intentionality, gathers up the long red silken path, clearing the way for her story to unfold.
At the onset, Ms. Gay takes on the persona of her adoptive mother, Carol Gay, who describes how, at age 35, she decided to adopt a child and what that process was like. She wonders at the ease with which the toddler she will name Julia accepts being passed on from her caregiver at the orphanage to a strange white woman. Shouldn't a baby who has been well cared for show more attachment to her caregiver? Is this a sign of problems she will encounter as a new parent? It is telling that in momentous turning points in one's life, every response, or lack of response, is viewed through a lens of trepidation, whether that feeling is called for or not.
Soon, Julia Gay is portraying herself and not her mother, and describes her anxiety about meeting the demands of the instructor at her weekly Chinese acrobatic and dance lessons; the awe she felt for the proprietress of the local Chinese restaurant, her link to all things Chinese in Solon, Ohio, a suburb of Cleveland; the gradually dawning recognition of being different from all the other boys and girls around her in some fundamental way; her fascination with pregnancy and birth, pretending in play that she was pregnant; and the desire to know about the land of her birth, its language, and her birth mother.
When Gay was eleven she finally did travel back with her Mom. She shares the quasi-religious experience of being at the very spot where she was found, abandoned, and taken to an orphanagespeculating as to whether or not she was found swaddled in a basket, a moment that prompts both laughter and tears. She visits the village of her birth mother, not at all what she expected. Gay puts her experience in the context of Chinese social history, the one-child policy aimed at curbing population growth, which caused many Chinese parents to give upif not murderinfant daughters in hopes of having a son. As a result, "China," Gay tells us, "is a nation of lost daughters." During that era, ninety-five percent of adopted Chinese children were girls.
The struggle to attain Chinese language weighs on her throughout her narration. When she finally begins to learn, it is like a new birth. She affirms "The language sounds and feels so good in my mouth. Its like eating a really good bowl of jasmine rice. It just feels so right. My genes want to speak that language."
Gay's recollections are shared in a variety of ways. Sometimes Julia carries out a stand-up mic and delivers and episode from her life as if she is a storyteller on the Moth Radio Hour. At other times, we hear her voice on a recording, sharing part of her past while she puts the words into motion with her elegant choreography. And sometimes she seams like a vulnerable, curled-up child, alone on stage, trusting this room full of strangers with her most intimate thoughts and feelings about her true identity.
Mike Wangen adds to the sensitivity of this presentation with his modulated lighting, casting a warm lilac glow at the rear of the stage, and soft hues that burnish the episodes of Julia Gay's life. Eric M. Gonzalez provides the sounds and music that serve as an aural curtain that frames the actor throughout her throughout the hour-long play.
Dreamland Arts has produced this remount of Motherlanded under their new Theaterwalla Program, a project to support solo artists performing their own work. If this production is an indicator, Theaterwalla is a project worth watching, for Motherlanded it is a touching, insightful, funny, poetic glimpse into a very particular type of life experience, but one that helps us understand the many ways our cultures divide and unify us. And it is altogether lovely.
Motherlanded runs through October 27, 2019, at Dreamland Arts, 677 Hamline Ave. N., Saint Paul MN. Tickets: Pay as you can, $10.00 minimum, $20.00 suggested. For tickets and information, visit dreamlandarts.com or call 651-645-5506.
Playwright, Director, Choreographer, Costume Design: Julia Gay; Lighting Design: Mike Wangen; Composer and Sound Design: Eric M.C. Gonzalez; Videographer: Ben McGinley; Production Manager: Noelle Awadallah
Cast: Julia Gay