Ga Ting (which means “Family” in Cantonese) is a heartwrenching and beautiful play. Playwright Minh Ly has written a story about a young man, with Chinese immigrant parents who have followed the classic model of continuous grinding hard work to obtain a modicum of prosperity, who cannot fit into the mold that his parents want for him. Kevin, a talented artist working a menial service job, is also bipolar, gay, and an experimental drug user. The play begins with flashing lights and sirens, as Kevin has just died of an overdose.
Kevin had a Caucasian boyfriend, Matthew, who goes to visit the grieving parents in what might be among the most awkward dinners in theatre (it does seem that dinners are an excellent way to set up drama, considering such works as “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner”, “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?”, and many others). The father (BC Lee), although prodded by the mother (played by Alannah Ong), can barely bring himself to talk to Matt. In turn, Matt is compelled to criticize the parents whom he blames for the death of his boyfriend, due to their coldness and inability to accept their son for who he was.
Matt engages in numerous missteps of his own. He was stereotyped in his approach to Kevin; his gift to Kevin’s parents was a cliche, He awkwardly accuses Kevin’s parents, particularly his father, of being ignorant and uneducated (somewhat of a blow to a man who has been too busy working to achieve the type of post-secondary education his son could take for granted).
Every play has resonances that cannot be imagined when it is created. Currently, we are witness to the spectacle of numerous grieving Chinese parents who have lost their only children on the MH370 flight, for reasons they cannot comprehend. For some reason, that ongoing tragedy came to mind as I watched Kevin’s parents try to endure an unimaginable loss. There are flashback moments to Kevin’s childhood, including an unbearably poignant (but not mawkish) scene where Kevin’s mother is holding him as a newborn and singing the first song she has learned in English, “Over the Rainbow”. The playwright Ly sensitively demonstrates that these parents are not cruel monsters. They loved their son, and he loved them. But yet, they could not connect authentically.
The play is crushingly realistic. We can easily imagine Kevin and Matt as a West End couple (although Kevin is never seen), and we can imagine the parents as owners of a traditional Chinese restaurant who want their son to become a businessman, a dentist, a doctor, or something practical. The play ends with a faint note of hope, as much as there can be in the midst of so much sadness and heartbreak.
“Ga Ting” manages the transitions between English and Cantonese very well. The surtitles are displayed so that viewers can follow along in whatever language is best for them. As a non-Cantonese speaker, I am sure I missed some subtleties. The play gets across the moments we have all experienced when we hear a conversation in a language we don’t understand, and have a feeling, justified or not, that they are talking about us. I am very interested in multilingual theatre, which seems particularly appropriate in a multicultural society, and the bilingual aspect was very well done here.
I am very sentimental, so perhaps that’s why the play brought me to tears. All of the characters painfully recognize, or at least begin to do so, how they might have failed Kevin, while still acknowledging Kevin’s agency.
This play is not pedantic; it is human, realistic, and nuanced. The actors do a magnificent job of bringing the characters to life. The playwright Minh Ly has poked at painful realities, but remains empathetic to all the parties involved.