I had quite an interesting evening a couple of weeks ago. Simon Johnston’s new play Sisters was in performance on Gateway Theatre’s Mainstage from January 31 to February 16, 2013, and although I didn’t get to see the play, on February 11 I attended a talk on the play at Historic Joy Kogawa House. It was led by Jovanni Sy, the artistic director of the Gateway Theatre, and Simon Johnston himself, from 7:30PM to 9:00PM. We had a quite lively discussion on the play; the inspiration behind it, how it came about, and what issues the play wants to highlight.
Sisters is set in a Chinese garrison town in 1936, and it tells the story of two Russian sisters, Masha and Irena, who live in a massive house with their brother and their Chinese sister-in-law, Natasha. As the sisters struggle to make ends meet and maintain the illusion of their former privileged lives in Moscow, their Chinese sister-in-law takes over the house, one room at a time. The play is inspired by Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, which got me interested when I first heard about it – I remember reading Three Sisters for the first time and how emotionally powerful it was. I wanted to know more about Johnston’s play, how it takes the influence of Chekhov’s play and what kind of issues it focuses upon.
During the talkback night, Simon Johnston read a few interesting excerpts from Sisters. The chosen excerpts illustrated the issues and tensions that are at play on the tale, among them the Russian sisters who long for their hometown and the clash between two cultures. Even though I didn’t get the chance to see the play itself, I think that the themes of longing and culture clash that the play brings about correspond nicely to each other here – as an international student living in Canada, I too have experienced the longing for my old hometown and the cultural adaptations in a foreign environment. And as Johnston mentioned during our talk, people have came up to him and said that they could relate to the story in Sisters to other things that they have felt or experienced in their everyday life. Instead of literally seeing the play as a story about two Russian sisters and their Chinese sister-in-law, some people can also see Sisters as a play on their own story; perhaps their own cultural environment in Richmond, Canada, or like my own, a longing for the past “home.”
We ended the talk after reflecting some more about the play’s issues and how they connect to our own experiences in everyday life. The one thing I remember the most was also our talk about art – art as something that allows people to talk about what they feel they are not allowed to talk about, such as, perhaps, the critique of multiculturalism, what is actually happening versus what is expected as the ideal, and what the society actually feels about certain issues regardless of the said expected ideals. And for me, after the close and intimate discussion, Sisters is doing this as art; starting the discussion and giving a way, or opportunity if you may, for people to talk.