Review | Acquiesce, David Yee

36152805acquiesce is such a powerful, emotionally resonant play about a man flying to Hong Kong for his father’s funeral. Sin is a Toronto author, who hasn’t spoken to his father for years, and so feels ill-qualified to do tasks expected of a dutiful son, such as giving his father’s eulogy. As the play progresses, various characters — Sin’s cousin, his father’s doctor — call him out for his lack of filial piety, but gradually, the story also unfolds to let us know the reason behind the estrangement in the first place.

There is so much to unpack in this play that I don’t even know where to start. I can attest to how strong it is on the page and can only imagine how powerful it plays out on stage.

The themes of family and filial piety are even more resonant to me because of the cultural context Yee incorporates so well into his play. There’s a lot of references to Chinese traditions around death, and how Sin is expected to honour them, and how difficult these are for Sin to do given how he feels about his father. One example is how Sin is expected to give his father’s eulogy — a difficult task in itself, made more difficult by the requirement to give it in Cantonese, a language Sin doesn’t speak. Sin’s cousin translates the eulogy for him and tells him to read it phonetically, and this just emphasizes how artificial the act of eulogizing his father feels for Sin.

The theme of cycles is also really strong. This is emphasized in the narrative’s non-linear structure, and most powerfully driven home in the reason behind Sin and his father’s estrangement. When Sin has to wash his father’s body for burial, he learns that he and his father may have had more similar childhoods than he’d initially realized, and that the things his father did may have been learned behaviours. Worse, Sin finds himself acting in a similar way towards his girlfriend, and realizes he himself has just as much potential to continue perpetuating a harmful cycle.

There’s also a surrealistic feel to the story, with a talking Paddington Bear and symptoms of hallucinations in both Sin and his father. For Sin’s father, the hallucinations were symptoms of the disease that ended up killing him, and tellingly, Sin pleads with the doctor for a similar physical reason rather than face the possibility that his hallucinations may be psychological. Tellingly, the scene ends with the doctor coughing up pearls, which Sin did a few scenes ago, and one wonders if this scene actually happened or if it was all in Sin’s mind.

The play keeps us off balance in terms of what is and isn’t real, but the emotional core ultimately rings true. The ending almost feels too pat for such a complex story, but I can also imagine how powerfully that moment can play onstage. As a fun sidebar, I see from the cast list in the book that Richard Lee was in the original cast, whom I remember seeing in the 2017 stage production of Kim’s Convenience. He impressed me as Jung in Kim’s Convenience, and I can imagine how great he’d be as Sin’s cousin Kai. (See the Globe and Mail’s review of the stage version here.)

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Thank you to Playwrights Canada Press for a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

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