David Yee says a quest story works well when streamed through noir.
LADY IN THE RED DRESS by David Yee, directed by Nina Lee Aquino, with Stewart Arnott, Ins Choi, Nicco Lorenzo Garcia, Laura Miyata and Richard Zeppieri (fu-GEN/Young Centre, 55 Mill). Previews begin Saturday (January 24), opens January 29 and runs to February 21, Monday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Saturday 2 pm. $10-$26. 416-866-8666.
David Yee's play lady in the red dress stems from the most bizarre inspiration: a racist letter from a Canadian member of Parliament.
In 2005, Yee responded to a request by the Chinese Canadian National Council (CCNC) to write government leaders about the proposed Bill C-333, which lamely addressed the issues of Chinese head taxes and the 1923 Chinese Exclusion Act.
"A motherfucker from BC wrote back calling the CCNC liars, saying the whole thing wasn't a real issue but merely a media ploy," Yee says, still angry at the memory.
"I started to write back to him and realized that he'd never read it. It made more sense to write a play, because that's what I do when I get really furious."
The result takes the form of a time-travelling noir excursion through nearly a century of Chinese-Canadian history. Sylvia, its title figure, is part avenging angel and part mystic teacher for Max, a government negotiator who's trying to sort out reparations for the Chinese community.
The white Max, a mass of contradictions, is a cutthroat bargainer who won't give in to the CCNC yet had a Chinese wife and is devoted to his high-functioning autistic son.
"In the first draft, Max had the voice of that right-wing MP," recalls Yee. "Now he's a man who never thought about doing the right thing but is pushed to do so when he's forced to identify with the party he's negotiating against.
"He's a lawyer with the Department of Justice, and he suddenly must think about what's actually right and fair - what justice truly is."
Sylvia's a harder figure for Yee to describe.
"She's the mythic part of the story, a timeless figure who actually grew out of an accidental meeting I had with Black Panthers co-founder Bobby Seale.
"Sylvia is the voice I wish for Chinese Canadians, a mix of Bruce Lee and Confucius and all the ghost stories about the vengeful bride with white hair. She's the voice of struggle, fighting for Chinese Canadians throughout history."
When I ask why he's decided to tell the story of these two characters in noir style, Yee smiles.
"I love Raymond Chandler novels and the movies and the noir resurgence through Frank Miller," he says, clearly passionate. "I wasn't consciously trying to emulate the style, but this kind of quest tale works so well when streamed through noir.
"After all, whether he realizes it or not, Max is a Don Quixote figure pursuing the path of righteousness, trying to accomplish tasks and forced to go on an epic journey to find not only right, but also the truth within himself."
What's no surprise is that lady in the red dress was developed through the Asian-Canadian company fu-GEN, which has fostered Yee's work for years as actor (Banana Boys, Singkil) and writer.
"It was through meeting people like Nina Lee Aquino, Richard Lee and Leon Aureus that I realized there was a community of Asian theatre people in Toronto. What we're doing through fu-GEN is vital: helping to build a home for future generations of artists."