LITTLE DRAGON by Keira Loughran, directed by Marion de Vries, with Loughran, Angela Besharah, Richard Lee, Michelle Polak, Nina Aquino and Julian Doucet. Presented by K'Now Theatre and Theatre Passe Muraille at the Passe Muraille Mainspace (16 Ryerson). Previews January 4 and 5, opens January 6 and runs to January 30, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday 2:30 pm. $25-$34, previews $16, Sunday pwyc-$16, limited same-day $10 rush. 416-504-7529. Rating: NNNNN
Keira Loughran could totally take me. The proud stance, the stony stare, the raspy tough-chick voice. Oh yeah, I'd be dead quicker than Uma Killed Bill.
We're sitting in the upstairs bar area of Theatre Passe Muraille amidst some upended chairs, a thin railing and a great view of the seating area below. Could be the setting for a bloody fight sequence in a Shaw Brothers kung fu flick.
Pretty appropriate, considering that Loughran's play Little Dragon begins previews this week. It's about a young third-generation Chinese-Canadian woman who thinks she might be the illegitimate daughter of martial arts legend Bruce Lee.
The play, which kicked out some major reviews and box office when it premiered in a different form two and a half years ago at SummerWorks, features lots of aikido-influenced movement. The performers - even while saying their lines - often spar, jab, take a fall.
"But so far no one's been injured," says Loughran after a rehearsal that involved her squirming on the floor and moving in a subtle yin/yang pattern. I don't see any bruises.
"Knock on wood."
Four months before the SummerWorks run, she tells me, the cast began martial arts classes. This time around, there are guest artists galore teaching contact improvisation and aikido.
"The whole cast knows principles about how to fall safely, balance and how energy sits in different parts of your body," says Loughran, who's earned her First Q in aikido, one level before black belt. "We've built up enormous trust in each other."
Falling safely. Balance. Trust. Energy. Terrific themes for creating a work about exploring one's cultural background. Not to mention the thrill of seeing people whoop each other's asses onstage.
The genesis of the piece, which cleverly upturns just about every Asian stereotype around, goes back many years, long before Uma zipped up her yellow track suit and those flying daggers found a house.
While studying theatre a decade ago at the University of Alberta, Loughran visited her cool aunt ("Everyone has one") in Montreal and discovered a key chain with a picture in it. Although the photo was of Bruce Lee, it looked suspiciously like Loughran's father, who died when she was four - the same year Lee himself died.
Then in 2000 she went to China for two months, and her life changed.
"It was the first time I became aware of how much being an ethnic minority had influenced my psyche growing up," she explains.
"Maybe I was naive, but I had always considered myself like everyone else. In China, if I didn't open my mouth and display my horrible accent, I could blend into any crowd. No one noticed me. And the thing is, I understood the place, I understood how things were run. Other backpackers thought things were chaotic and ass-backwards, but it made sense to me.
"That's when I started thinking how much my being Chinese influenced me."
Still, she insists that the play isn't autobiographical, even though it's partly inspired by her family and her identity search. Unlike her character, Jennifer Macdonald, she knew a lot about her Chinese ancestry even while growing up in North York with her mom - who directed community theatre musicals - and Caucasian stepdad.
Her paternal grandmother, community organizer and activist Jean Lumb, the first Chinese-Canadian woman to earn the Order of Canada, saw to that.
"When she was raising us, she would always talk about how proud she was to be a Canadian," recalls Loughran.
"She was also proud to be Chinese. She did tons of community work - not just with the Chinese community, but also with women's groups.
"That's probably where I learned about the importance of family and the relationships you build. I grew up thinking, 'Of course we belong to society.' That was intact until I went to university and was the only non-white person in my class."
Actor/playwright Araxi Arslanian, whose play Serious Loughran directed last year, remembers seeing Loughran's student performances in Edmonton.
"In a class full of Teutonic white-toast Anglo Saxons, Keira had the balls not to try to be like them," says Arslanian, a theatre critic at the time. "Keira is unapologetically herself, but with a gentleness. She's not abrasive. She commands your attention, she doesn't stand up and demand it."
That same spirit has infused her career in Toronto in roles like one of the plucky, independent women in Jean Yoon's The Yoko Ono Project, the street-smart stripper in Sarah Martyn's Sheroes and the defiant and tragic mother in Marjorie Chan's China Doll. Not for her the lotus blossom stereotype.
Ever the pragmatist, back in high school she questioned whether a non-white person could build a stage career without playing only servants.
A turning point came during a talk-back session after a performance of Tartuffe when African-Canadian actor Alison Sealy-Smith spoke of her decision to play a maid in the show.
"She said there was a point in her career when she decided she'd never play a maid again. But then she got Tartuffe. She realized it was a great show, a great cast. Her advice was, 'Know what you'll do, but also be flexible.' Here was this strong, smart woman with integrity."
That could be a description of Loughran herself, who decided not to return to Stratford this year after one strong season.
"I would love to continue with them. They were good to me, but there just wasn't anything for me," she says, cautious about her wording. "We're all interested that there might be something later."
She's all for non-traditional casting. One of her first big breaks came at Young People's Theatre, where she was cast as Nancy in Oliver Twist and as the nowhere-near-blond lead in Alice.
"In one of the performances for Oliver, I remember this audible gasp when I made my entrance," she laughs. "A lot of the audience was Asian, and they couldn't believe they were seeing an Asian in a big role, and not just any Asian person but a cool, tough-assed chick! They hadn't seen that on Polka Dot Door."
After Little Dragon, pretty much a guaranteed hit at Passe Muraille, Loughran is mixing things up. She's just been named one of the co-artistic producers of the SummerWorks festival, and she's exploring more independent directing and producing. She's also developing a second play, Black Widow, with Little Dragon designer Trevor Schwellnus.
"I'm feeling more responsibility as an artist to play people I believe in," she says. "They don't have to be perfect or even nice.
"But I don't know how comfortable I'd be now playing an ingenue. Or playing an ingenue the way most people want them played. Vulnerability? Absolutely. An accessibility to their emotional core? Sure. But too often things are simplified.
"When some directors say they want something, what they actually want is weaker choices that don't make the situation interesting. They don't recognize depths. I don't want to perpetuate that onstage. It's like asking someone to play a pure ethnic stereotype with no payback for it at all.
"We have to take responsibility for the people we portray."