Photo | Lucy Fang
David Yee’s lady in the red dress probes at Canada’s dark history of the Chinese Head Tax. Protagonist Max (James Hyett) is a descendant of generations of white men who enforced racist, exploitative regulations on Chinese immigrants since the late 1800s.
Situated in the present day, Max slowly discovers Canada’s guilt and lack of accountability through his hallucinations regarding the past; half-Chinese Sylvia (Kenzie Tzang) seeks vengeance for her Chinese father in a red qipao (a traditional Chinese dress for women) accompanied by a similarly dressed chorus (Alice Guo, Victoria Ngai). Sylvia tasks Max to find her father in Chinatown. Max juggles the resurfacing “Chinese problem” by mediating between the Canadian government’s unwillingness to pay large reparation sums, and Chinese descendants’ search for redress.
The play largely centers on the white man facing generations of guilt. The only line spoken by a Chinese woman is a disgusted “gweilo,” a slightly derogatory slang term for Westerners, amongst background voices speaking in Cantonese and Mandarin. The production, however, still finds some room for other voices. In a particularly tender moment, Sylvia, who has grown up with society’s negative views of mixed-race children, converses with Danny (Cy Macikunas), Max’s half-Chinese son. Danny has been taught by his father that mixed-race people are special and valued, and he expresses this to Sylvia. Further, Chan of the one-man radio show speaks exclusively in Canadian teenage slang, but has a copy of Terry Woo’s Banana Boys in his yellow hoodie—a nod to the specific experience of second generation immigrants who are Asian in skin colour, but “white,” or assimilated into Western society internally.
The use of short, brightly coloured qipao evokes, if not plays with, the Western Orientalist gaze. Sylvia and her accompanying chorus wear styles that are too sexualized and extravagant for the play’s time period, but are recognizable to any audience as distinctly “Chinese.” The production plays into every Western preconception of China, from white men who “love Oriental girls,” and quiet, sexualized Chinese women. Sylvia and the chorus subvert these preconceptions when they stab Max in the hand and thigh. As Max uncovers skeleton after skeleton, his guilt is manifested in physical form—bandages on his hand and thigh, a lost tooth, and not sleeping for days as he degenerates into hysteria.
The production balances dark themes—conflict and pain often taking form in physical violence—with comic relief carried by the easy-going Chan brothers who beatbox (Nam Nguyen), and asides about The Brass Rail on Yonge Street. Under Jasmine Cabanilla’s direction, the lady in the red dress is not another piece of racial injustice history that is “made about white people;” the play shows how Sylvia, the Chans, and ultimately Yee must re-examine past policies regarding their Chinese ancestors. Max recognizes the circumstances of his guilt only after Sylvia’s increasingly persuasive, and violent, insistence.