Arts Down Under 2020: 落叶归根 (Luò yè guī gēn) Getting Home by Cheryl Ho (Review)
Much potential in this original performance about homesickness, identity and art.
Life as a struggling artist is already hard enough. But for a young Singaporean artist, 6000 kilometres from home and all alone, that situation is enough to compound things to the point one would begin to question’s one’s choice to even pursue such a career choice, and wonder how differently life would have turned out if she had just stuck to a more traditional route.
That’s something tackled head-on in Melbourne-based Singaporean artist Cheryl Ho’s one-woman show 落叶归根 (Luò yè guī gēn) Getting Home, which was pre-recorded and streamed as part of the 2020 Melbourne Fringe Festival. In the show, Cheryl plays Hui Yi, a character whose life seems to mirror that of the actress in real life – a Melbourne-based Singaporean actress attempting to break into the scene. But as she deals with auditions and proposals for arts festivals, her fears begin to get the worse of her, and she thinks back to her family history, and whether as a descendant of immigrants who worked hard to better the lives of the next generation, she’s somehow disappointed them all with her life decisions.
The artist struggle is a narrative that’s been told countless times in Western media, but perhaps, for an Asian artist, it’s a story that’s further complicated by the tug of obligation to be a ‘filial’ daughter to her family back home. This is of course, emphasised by her memories of being told that becoming a doctor or lawyer or engineer would be a much more ‘practical’ career, something she seems to explore through role play in her Singlish-touting, heavily-accented ‘char bor’ alter ego (also a useful vessel to portray Cheryl’s versatile acting chops).
For anyone who’s chosen to live overseas, Hui Yi’s fears and emotions are familiar ones, as she sits alone in her room, struggling with writer’s block and attempting to do so many things independently, enjoying the freedom yet constantly plagued by insecurities. Hand-drawn animated sequences and a houseplant doubling as a literal ‘Alexa’ add enough quirks to the show to let it stand out, but Cheryl is at her strongest when she digs deep into her storytelling abilities and mines for genuine emotion. This is especially powerful as she narrates anecdotes such as Hui Yi’s relationship with her grandmother growing up, how much darker the streets are in Melbourne compared to Singapore, the discomfort she feels renting an apartment (and always moving elsewhere each time her lease expires), the dissolving of five hour family gatherings into five minute ‘how are you’s and even the visceral nature of attending a funeral via Skype.
At the crux of the performance is an almost surreal, apocalyptic experience when Hui Yi experiences an earthquake, and she retreats deep into herself to decide what she wants to do with her life. It becomes evident that in Melbourne, she has been unable to forge strong enough relationships to consider it home. For someone who’s always been so close to her family, it’s no wonder that moving away has had such a profoundly worrisome impact on her, and how the defamiliarisation of her environment has led to the identity crisis, alongside the millennial fear that everything that has led up to her life at this point is completely worthless. “I think a lot about death,” she says, and for so many youths today, the future seems terrifying to consider, murky and uncertain to the point of paralysis. Projections employed on the screen behind her portray the chaos of her mind, the voices of her family, the expectations lauded onto her and the little tragedies in her live overwhelming her to the point of collapse.
While there are some loose ends by the show’s conclusion, from the greater meaning behind her ‘char bor’ persona to the interesting but underexplored metaphor of trees and planting, 落叶归根 (Luò yè guī gēn) ends on a hopeful note, with Hui Yi receiving success in her applications and auditions, marking a better future and assurance that she’s done something right in her life. She certainly hasn’t fully figured out her life just yet, but for now at least, she’s learning to form her own definition of home, regardless of where she is in the world. And for Cheryl, this is a show that proves her potential as an artist, and certainly, has the potential to flourish if she is willing to take more bold, creative risks in her ideas and continue developing her craft.
落叶归根 (Luò yè guī gēn) Getting Home ran from 21st to 28th November 2020 online. For more information and tickets, visit the Melbourne Fringe website here