Rice & beans theatre’s new play Chicken Girl takes viewers on a wildly surreal, fantastical journey, but it’s rooted in an intimate, real-life memory of its writer and director, Derek Chan.
When he was a preschooler growing up in Hong Kong, his father would often pick him up from his grandmother’s after work to take him home on the bus. It was usually an uneventful ride with little chat. “He was not someone used to expressing care or emotion to his children,” Chan relates to the Straight over the phone before rehearsals. “But once in a while, for whatever cosmic reason, he would take me to this weird chicken shack under a highway bridge.”
Those were some of Chan’s fondest memories with his father. The youngster was allowed to choose from all the different kinds of fried chicken, and his dad would ask the server to give him the right leg of the bird; because his son ate with his left hand, he believed that would ensure he got the best part of the meat first.
Chan would go on to move here at 18 after living briefly in Norway, but he would bring those memories with him. And so, in the middle of the chaotic, layered magical worlds that he conjures in his newest play, a chicken shack sits at centre stage. “It’s so the characters and the audience have a safe place to go,” he explains.
In the story, Uncle Chan (BC Lee) runs a fried-chicken shop, and when he disappears one day, the title character (Amanda Sum), who works for him, takes off on a bizarre adventure to find him.
So begins the journey, blending together Chan’s, and rice & beans’, usual genre-jumping, culture-crossing mashup of styles. Chan cites everything from 1970s Hong Kong kung fu flicks to ’90s ghost movies as references.
But Chan not only fuses styles, he mixes languages. “A character will speak in Cantonese and another will answer in English,” he says. “So in terms of style this play really reflects my journey all the way from Hong Kong to two years in Norway and now all my years in Canada. All the sounds and songs and languages are there.
“Because of the linguistic capabilities of the cast,” he adds with a laugh, “sometimes I’d be directing in Cantonese and then in English, and more than once I’d begin talking in Cantonese to a non-Cantonese-speaking person. But definitely this idea of moving places and trying to find what home is mostly from a young age, that has definitely motivated my obsession with disorientation. And yes, I do often find the world a confusing place, both politically and emotionally and mentally.”
Navigating sometimes hallucinatory terrain but grounded in real emotion, Chicken Girl offers a different kind of theatrical experience—the kind that’s gaining the company founded by Chan and Pedro Chamale more and more attention. It’s enjoying a residency at the Annex right now and is preparing to become company in residence at the Arts Club Theatre next season. Those same artistic risks won it inclusion in the Magnetic North Festival.
Asked to describe what it will be like to see it, Chan pauses and says: “It’s like watching an adult having a dream as a child.”
Rice & beans theatre’s Chicken Girl is at the Annex Theatre until next Friday (June 7) as part of the Magnetic North Festival.