november 2016 | Volume 149
Maki Yi in Suitcase Stories. Photo by Damon Calderwood.
Suitcase Stories is Maki Yi’s autobiographical account of her adventures and misadventures as a Korean visitor, student, actor and finally immigrant in Canada. Maki is a charming personality, and director Colleen Lanki helps her create an imaginative map of her journey on what begins as a bare stage. The first half of the 90-minute monologue is relatively uneventful; the second half offers an engaging portrait.
Maki provides her version of the culture shock narrative to open the play. Arriving in Toronto, she’s surprised and anxious at seeing so many non-white people. She’s overwhelmed by the expansiveness of the prairies, surprised by the barrenness of Regina (“like a ghost town”), afraid she’ll be scalped by Indians, and taken aback by seeing people kiss in public. So far hers is a familiar and fairly banal story.
It gets more interesting when she falls in love with theatre at Regina U. and spends three years learning her new art and craft, only to be discouraged by everyone in authority—director, priest, parents—from pursuing it. But this girl is nothing if not persistent.
That becomes clear in the last section of her tale, which concerns Maki’s attempts to secure, first, a student visa and eventually permanent residency. She’s screwed around by Canadian Immigration at every turn, given contradictory instructions, suffers unconscionable delays. But the very fact that she’s performing her story for us means we know how it will end.
It’s hard not to sympathize with her frustrations, but at the same time it’s clear that she was never imprisoned, never tortured, her life was never in danger. What she suffered were the torments of bureaucracy. This is no Syrian or Iraqi refugee tale.
But something was driving her, making her desperate to stay in Canada. And it wasn’t just her newfound love of theatre. Throughout the play we’re given hints of some deep, traumatic unhappiness with her life in Korea, and only at the end does she reveal the details of her despair at living in a deeply conservative, sexist culture that restricts and constricts her life. I would have liked some of that information earlier in the narrative.
In any event Maki’s charm ultimately wins us over. The stage, by the end, has become filled with images created by ribbons she pulls from the bottom of her suitcase to portray the long prairie highway, and chalk-drawn names of the places key to her Canadian experience, and a chalk-drawn theatre. Her little suitcase—her only companion—is filled with a few props she uses effectively: a toy bus, her immigration applications.
That suitcase is, for me, also the one annoying element of the show. It talks. Maki talks to the suitcase and she has it talk back to her in a squeaky little voice that I found awkward, grating and artificial.
Nothing in the suitcase dialogues couldn’t be revealed just as effectively in Maki Yi’s own, more pleasant voice. It’s a heavily accented voice, but you get to know it and like it, just as you do Maki herself.
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