Playwright traces 4 generations of his family history in musical one-man play

When Jeff Ho was 16, he travelled from Toronto to Montreal to audition for theatre school.

His mother, a single parent who had immigrated from Hong Kong, was not pleased.

Ho told CBC’s All in a Weekend that his mother had expectations that he would become a doctor or a lawyer, not a theatre artist.

“It really felt like a calling,” said Ho, who added that he had been inspired by notable National Theatre School graduate Sandra Oh.

While the decision caused a rift in their relationship at the time, Ho said it helped spark his creative urges to write a play about his own family history.

The play Trace, which played at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa in 2019, turned into an ode to the strong women in Ho’s family.

“I was hoping to really excavate how and why my single mother — who travelled from Hong Kong to Canada with just her two sons, my brother and myself, in 2001 — had this strength to be able to let go of her entire life, the ability to forego her entire career and education that she had set up for herself and the stability that she could find in Hong Kong just so that she could imagine a better life for future generations of her family tree,” he said.

He picked up on how his mother’s story “echoed and paralleled” the journey his great-grandmother made leaving China for Hong Kong during the Second World War.

“I just wanted to understand how people can do seemingly impossible tasks so that their family can have better lives.”

Listen to Jeff Ho describe how the play came into being:

All in a Weekend12:18Jeff Ho traces three generations of matrilineal family history through personal solo play

Jeff Ho plays all the parts in Trace, his award-winning solo play. It begins with the story of his Chinese grandmother who flees to Hong Kong during WWII, a story that echoes through generations of his family, including Jeff Ho’s own journey. He tells us about stepping into the roles of his great-grandmother, grandmother and mother. 12:18

He said during the trip, his great-grandmother “had to let go of her youngest son” and that the effects of this sacrifice have rippled through his family line.

Ho said that his play is “fiction weaved in with moments of truth,” and built around family stories, conversations and memories of his mother, grandmother and great-grandmother.

In performance, Ho plays the roles of all four women in the story and accompanies himself on the piano.

He said writing the play helped heal his relationship with his mother, as he reached out to her to ask for more information about their family.

A trained musician, Ho wrote the play in the form of a five-movement piano sonata.

He said he chose music for the play that he knew was meaningful to his mother.

“All the piano music in the play were songs that my mother used to love listening to.”

He said when she came to see the play in Ottawa, he felt that the music was “almost like a little secret for her in the audience.”

“A secret of ‘this is for you Mom. I love you. I understand a little bit more now,'” he said.

An excerpt from Trace will be performed by Jeff Ho as part of Montreal’s Festival Accès Asie, Canada’s longest running Asian arts festival. The online event will be streamed for free online on May 27 at 7 p.m.