Trigger Warning: This play discusses and depicts issues of mental illness, as well as suicidal thoughts and action. A list of mental health resources is available here.
Written by Frances Ya-Chu Cowhig ’05 and directed by TAPS Department Chair Erik Ehn, 410[Gone] is a theatrical powerhouse. Set in an arcade located under a mountain in the Shandong Province of China (yes, you read that right), the play whimsically and effectively blends the modern experience of two Chinese-American young adults with ancient lore concerning the Chinese Land of the Dead.
The semi-autobiographical play follows Twenty-One (Kathy Ng ’17) as she pieces together the details surrounding the suicide of her younger brother, Seventeen (Bee Vang ’15). Seventeen’s suicide is rooted in reality for Ya-Chu Cowhig, who lost her own brother to suicide.
Despite a basis in real-life events, much of the play takes place in a fantasy land. Traversing the road from life to afterlife, the siblings encounter the Chinese Land of the Dead, which is stylized in the play as an arcade. This is a land where souls are transformed from life to death through following their footsteps in life as a game of Dance Dance Revolution.
The Land is inhabited by the mischievous Monkey King (Pei Ling Chia ’15), who has been condemned to labor beneath the mountain, and the Goddess of Mercy (Ziyi Yang ’16), who has chosen to live on earth until all beings have been freed from the cycle of rebirth. Ox-Head (Lizzy Callas ’15) is a non-speaking presence who looms onstage for the duration of the show, emerging at the climax of the play to fulfill the role as the bearer of the Soup of Forgetting.
The play’s connection to last week’s events is not lost on the cast and crew. Director Erik Ehn noted: “There is a cloud on campus; we mourn the loss of Hyoun Ju Sohn. Our play concerns issues so close to recent events. We go forward with the play because we believe that the act of making theater can be light that filters through the clouds.”
The set is reminiscent of a garage-style arcade, with props and pieces scattered about. Lamps are turned upside on the floor, phones are hidden about the audience, and a bathtub functions as a bed. The light and sound add to the surreality of the space. A large projection screen acts as a makeshift ceiling, hanging stretched above the stage. Images and videos are projected onto the screen to highlight various bits of dramatic action. Meanwhile, the sounds vary from electronic music (akin to DDR) to melodic Chinese tunes.
As the plot moves along, the forward narrative of Seventeen’s journey through death coincides with the backward narrative of Twenty-One uncovering the clues of her brother’s suicide. Culture clash is evident and seamless. His sister goes to Chinese grocery store to buy small paper replicas and food to send to her brother in the afterlife. Meanwhile, Seventeen, in disbelief that he is beneath a mountain in China, asks, “Where are the pagodas? The factories?”
Ancient Chinese tales meet the modern experience of two “ABC”s, or “American-Born Chinese,” and the, at times, painful intersections are performed with sincerity. Likely, these are especially believable due to the work of Pei Ling Chia, who doubled as the production’s dramaturg.
Kathy Ng delivers a dynamic performance as Twenty-One, at times oblivious, hopeful, or lighthearted, and at others hurt, hopeless, or vengeful. Meanwhile, Bee Vang, as Seventeen, encompasses the teen angst of growing up with the deep emotional trauma of mental illness.
The most delightful pairing, Pei Ling Chia and Ziyi Yang (Monkey King and Goddess of Mercy, respectively) are a delight to watch, as the mischievous Chia taunts and plays with the Yang’s Goddess, whom years of waiting and watching have embittered her.
In light of the loss of Hyoun Ju Sohn, and the epidemic of youth suicide, 410[Gone] examines not only the environment and circumstances that lead a person to end their own life, but also tells a story of the departed’s lasting marks on the world–and the people they leave behind.
Performed at Brown at this time, the narrative takes on what Ya-Chu Cowhig calls “a different geography, a new setting than that in which I wrote it,” but a setting which is searingly relevant to the themes of the play. While the audience may not get a sense of Seventeen’s thoughts (the lack of a note, the confusing clues), the story is in itself an effect of the suicide. In that sense, as Ehn notes, Brown has been blessed with an outlet and a narrative through which the community is able to channel the confusion, loss, and mourning at the loss of one of our own.
In spite of its traumatic theme, the play effortlessly moves from moments of intense emotion to much needed levity. Ehn explained that “it shows that the unknown might actually be happy.” Moreover, the play deals with issues of mental illness and suicide in a way that gives them the reverence necessary while maintaining the narrative of a theatrical production.
410[Gone] runs for one more weekend at Leeds Theatre. Show times are 8 p.m. on April 9,10,11 and 2 p.m. on April 12. Tickets are available online here or at the box office one hour before the performance begins.