by Jasmine Gui
SPOILER ALERT: The following feature contains spoilers relating to the play.
As the lights dim, the sound of an unidentified female voice narrating draws us into the world of ‘Swan’. This encounter is also a confession. The distinct clarity of a single voice that draws us in is, however, gradually replaced in the play by many different voices, culminating in a communal confession.
Aaron Jan, the Hamilton-born, Toronto raised playwright and director of ‘Swan’ crafts an ensemble of character voices (Joey, Bill, Ron, Rachel, Piper and Jenna) who speak to, over, and for each other as they gather to unravel the forgotten event that sits at the heart of their relationship. The voices swell into a choral telling when the protagonists finally come together. Their ensemble narration weaves episodic flashbacks and individual character asides into the ongoing storyline of the present. The plot itself unfolds in a series of layered vignettes to offer more and more pieces of truth. When asked about the process of creating this unique mode of narration, Jan explains, “In the writing, a character doesn’t get to narrate the events of the play until Joey has recruited her to the group. The only time they all story tell together is when they’re reunited in that reunion scene. Even if the audience has not been following the play word for word, psychologically they can accept the situation because the way the stories are told and the uniting of narrators has been established as a convention of the world.”
This active narration creates a totalizing world that pulls the audience into the play with the characters, giving Jan the tools to create elements of horror without having to rely excessively on props. He employs the audience’s imagination to fill the story with details, guided by thoughtfully produced sets, soundtrack and lighting.
“By making the audience complicit in the storytelling we force them to engage their imaginations to create the horrifying images that happen”.
We not only bear witness to how the monsters are created, we also help imagine them into being. This effectively prevents us from labeling who the monsters really are. Michelle Chiu (Bill), was drawn to this aspect of the play, “It seemed so entrancing, how the play is written – you’re kept on the edge of your seat and guessing until the very end. I love that.” Our expectations are subverted when we discover that the monsters are really victims of violence inflicted by others – victims of the characters’ desire to be visible, prove themselves, fit in. Furthermore, we learn that that the monsters the characters are looking for, are also themselves.
Jan cites this sliding positionality as a key theme in the play, “We live in an age of armchair activism, where as a primarily left wing online society, we gather and find strength around created “pariah”. Someone commits a crime, we de-humanize them. They’re monsters! They’re not like us! In distancing ourselves from these “pariah” we absolve ourselves from our complicity in a societal norm that’s created them. We absolve ourselves from guilt.
We fail to fix what created the supposed monster through our condemnation.”
Horror in this play is multi-faceted, and functions to simultaneously identify and de-familiarize the impact of racialized and gendered marginalization. The story is centered around a group of young, queer women of colour who struggle as outsiders in the city of Hamilton. We are given insight into their degrees of isolation, fear, pressure, and longing. As the story progresses, what becomes most horrifying are not the monsters themselves, but the growing realization that our protagonists are caught in the middle of horror they are complicit in and responsible for, because of circumstances that are familiar and common to many.
Angela Sun (Ron) decided to audition for the play because of this very familiarity, “I was very attracted to the theme of what it means to be an immigrant or children of immigrants in the play. I immigrated to Canada when I was very young and really connected with Aaron’s depictions of the reality of what it means to have your identities questioned and unrecognized.” This sentiment is similarly echoed by Isabel Kanaan (Rachel), “What initially drew me to the play was that it was a story about queer women of colour, which is what I am.”
Jan wanted to write complex roles for characters of colour because there was a lack. In ‘Swan’, each character’s race and gender makes them dynamic and interesting, not one-dimensional. There is a particularly compelling moment of horror in the play for in flashback where Piper is bullied into taking the final, killing bite. It is a charged scene where power, violence, complicity and helplessness become the same thing. Christine Nguyen who plays Piper, recognizes her character in this position of tension, “Her voice is trapped within the group structure. It’s an interesting position to be in because there’s a strange safety within complacency but, because you’re homogenized, it also becomes dangerous.” We discover what is at the core of Piper’s character in this moment, and it is heartbreaking.
The horror in ‘Swan’ is a tight knot of guilt and memory.
Guilt is a mixture of pain and fear: a twitch, a throbbing, restlessness, rotting, a voice in the head, a shadow, a forgetting. Each character’s pain is guilt embodied even when the source of guilt has been forgotten. Autonomic reactions they cannot control. Memory is a desire for the truth: who killed the swan? But even in the discovering, the truth is twisted and mangled, inflected by larger questions of identity and desire. As the play ends, questions are left unanswered, possibilities promised but unexplored, and convictions effaced. Survival comes at great cost, accompanied by deep loss. In taking the specific experiences of non-white race and non-heteronormative sexual identity and fusing it with horror, Jan invites us to co-create with him, and in the process, crafts a complicity we cannot shake off.
Thoughtful and complex, ‘Swan’ is a welcome addition to a growing body of writing that engages marginalized experiences without falling back into fatigued narratives, and it features a promising stellar cast and production team.
‘Swan’ is playing till November 13th. Tickets are available HERE.
Special thanks to Aaron Jan, Michelle Chiu, Isabel Kanaan, Angela Sun, Christine Nguyen and Dylan On.