Familial connection with a place is as undeniable as the inheritance of DNA in Tricia Collins's script for Gravity. In one of the play's most memorable lines, Maya, the central character, says, "My grandmother's body is a city sitting on the edge of an ocean."
Urban ink's production of Gravity is a centrepiece in this year's Heart of the City Festival, which examines the interaction between Vancouver and its citizens from some surprising angles. During the festival, which runs at various locations from Wednesday (October 24) to November 4, audience members can enjoy music by Sawagi Taiko and the Silk Road Duo. Ya-wen V. Wang is organizing the Water Cabaret, in which a dozen local artists will explore diverse aquatic themes. There will also be films, poetry, guided walks, hip-hop, and Gina Bastone's A Downtown Eastside Romeo and Juliet, which will reimagine William Shakespeare's classic in terms of marginalization, poverty, and gentrification. (See www.heartofthecityfestival.com/ for details.)
Chatting in the Chapel on Dunlevy Street, where urban ink's production of Gravity will run from October 25 to November 3, Collins explains that her family's history is interwoven with that of Georgetown, the capital of Guyana. In 1990, when she was 11, Collins visited Guyana for the first time with her mother, who had grown up there. "It's just so shockingly different from what I imagined," she says. "I had envisioned it in terms of old sepia photographs of the 1950s–kind of like Cuba." What she actually saw then, and in a second visit over the 2005–06 New Year, included decaying buildings, troubling rates of HIV infection, and poverty so severe that in some extreme cases families sell their daughters.
Gravity is a work of fiction that has allowed Collins to examine both her family and the city that shaped it. In this solo piece, directed by Maiko Bae Yamamoto, she will portray all four characters. The Girl has been kidnapped from her Chinese village and is being shipped in a crate to South America, where she will breed workers and provide cheap labour. Her daughter, Granny Ling, gives birth to Josephine, who falls in love with a black man named Cyril and conceives Maya. Granny Ling rejects Josephine because of her love for a non-Chinese man. Then, searching for Cyril, Josephine falls into a river and drowns. In the play's central image, Josephine is a ghost trapped in a waterfall, forever falling, never landing. Maya, who lives in a city very much like Vancouver, visits the waterfall to face her family's ghosts.
Like the Girl, Collins's great-great-grandmother was exported from China, as property, to Guyana, bound feet and all. Like Josephine, Collins's grandmother fell in love with a black man, and the family came between them. "They had this drive to maintain ethnic lines or whatever," Collins says of her relatives. So the experience of the women in the play involves three kinds of longing: geographic, cultural, and sexual.
In the play, emotional resolution comes when Maya honours the importance of her forebears' experience. "They're just memories," Collins explains. "But they all exist in her body or her mind. So by untangling their stories, by looking at them and acknowledging them, she cuts them loose and lets them fall."
Collins's engagement with Georgetown exists beyond her immediate family. Another image in the play speaks to the city's fragility. Shortly after her second visit to Guyana, the city experienced a crippling flood. Georgetown is below sea level, and many of the floodways meant to protect it are clogged with plant life and pollution. In the play, Maya, who is an environmental engineer, brings a water pump to Georgetown that she hopes will clear the obstructions and "help to reverse the damage of time".
Asked what she wants the audience to feel at the end, Collins replies: "I want people to feel light. There's so much heaviness. But I hope that, by the end, we can feel some relief."