Ng's honesty and candour are stark reminders we're still not out of Covid.
John Ng appears next month in the Canadian premiere of ‘The Chinese Lady’ by American playwright Lloyd Suh.
It was one of those rare occasions when I was running late to interview John as traffic was terrible and I felt awful about my tardiness. An actor’s time is precious especially if he or she has had a full day of rehearsal and then has other responsibilities.
What a most accommodating individual. John was more concerned about me because I ran into the room huffing after running from the taxi to get to the rehearsal room where we would speak.
After I composed myself, we got into John’s love of performance and why he wanted to be an actor. He has appeared in CBC’s ‘Kim's Convenience’ (2016), ‘Rising Suns’ (2020) and ‘The Swan’ (2020).
Ng completed his training in the Honours Programme in Directing at the University of Ottawa. He laughed and told me it was a five-year plan for him in theatre studies. His goal was not to go to New York City but to come to Toronto and do a show at Theatre Passe Muraille, at Factory and Tarragon Theatres. He has done all that. In that respect, John feels he has fulfilled a goal upon graduation.
Coming out of university, he was getting roles in acting. He wrote plays, one of which was performed at the Toronto Fringe in 2001. The production did quite well, and John proudly stated the Fringe play was his launching pad into the Toronto scene which was the start of the golden era of Chinese Canadian theatre in the city. Marjorie Chan who will direct John in ‘The Chinese Lady’ appeared in Ng’s Toronto Fringe play.
‘The Chinese Lady’ (a two-hander) is his first show in three years. This time around, he is working with Rosie Simon and director Marjorie Chan (Artistic Director of Theatre Passe Muraille) at the helm. He’s worked with Rosie before and describes her as fearless. She fights for things and she always comes out ‘rosy’. He has so much confidence in Simon and Ng draws on that.
John describes Marjorie Chan as ‘a great people person’. She gives an actor lots of room and is very perceptive. Because she has worn every hat in the theatre, Marjorie has such a vast toolkit for the actor. An actor can trust Marjorie when she speaks because she knows what she is talking about.
After a three-year absence from the theatre, (his last show in the fall of 2019), John smiled when he said he thought he still knew what was involved in the theatre rehearsal process. He also joked he hasn’t performed in a two-hander since his undergraduate years, so he has been quite attentive.
For him, there has been a seismic change in the theatre at the top post-Covid. Many theatre companies and artistic directors have stepped aside and opened up to be more inclusive. These changes in the theatre are for the next generation of theatre artists and theatregoers.
John then shared a personal story about how he felt with the return to the theatre even though we are still in Covid’s embrace:
“I have to be honest. I was ready to give it up. I was ready to just pack it in. I didn’t think I would return. I didn’t think theatre would return even to the extent that we’re in now. Those were dark days. How would we ever get back to theatre especially when I had heard of actors getting sick when theatres were allowed to return? So many shows were lost over these past few years.”
Ng’s honesty and candour are startling but a stark reminder we’re still not out of Covid. He still muses ‘The Chinese Lady’ might very well be his last show. Or, if he does another show, that could be his last one. That’s how he’s looking at it.
The rehearsal room has been exciting and fun. John praises director Marjorie Chan for keeping rehearsals light in the room. Everyone is comfortable with each other and there is no pressure to perform. There’s a sense of creation and exploration.
According to John and Crow’s website, ‘The Chinese Lady’ is the first documented Chinese female, Afong May, to arrive in the United States from Guangzhou Province in 1834. She is 14 years of age. She has been hired to promote merchandise. Purportedly the first Chinese woman to set foot on U.S. soil, Afong May has been put on display for the American public as “The Chinese Lady.” As the decades wear on, her celebrated sideshow comes to define and challenge her very sense of identity. Alternatingly dark, poetic, and whimsical, the play is a searing portrait of Western culture seen through the eyes of a young Chinese woman. John compares ‘The Chinese Lady’ to being an absurdist play. Periodically, the fourth wall is broken and the characters speak to the audience.
What message does John hope audiences will take away after seeing ‘The Chinese Lady’:
“That’s a metaphysical question for discourse and, for me, that’s what the play’s about. I hope audiences will leave and think about in terms of how they perceive things in reality and question how much they have been influenced by advertising by propaganda and social influencing.”
What’s next for John once ‘The Chinese Lady’ has completed its run?
Nothing has been confirmed, but a couple of projects will hopefully get the green light. The one thing John will confirm - he will go home and tend to his cat.
Produced by Studio 180 Theatre in association with fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company in association with Crow’s Theatre. ‘The Chinese Lady’ runs May 2-21 in the Studio Theatre at Crow’s Theatre, 345 Carlaw Avenue, Toronto. For tickets, visit crowstheatre.com or call (647) 341-7390 ex. 1010.
To learn more about Studio 180 Theatre, visit studio180theatre.com.
To learn more about fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company, visit fu-gen.org.