Calgary

Sweet and Sour Secrets a recipe for family comedy

Ai Yah! Sweet and Sour Secrets, by Calgary playwright Dale Lee Kwong, is a coming-out-comedy set during Chinese New Year, inspired by a moment missing from her own life.

'It's important that people of colour get to see their stories on stage'

Jamie Matchullis, Chantelle Han, Ben Wong and Kelsey Verzotti star in Calgary playwright Dale Lee Kwong's Ai Yah! Sweet and Sour Secrets. The play tells the story of a Chinese New Year's unlike any other for one Calgary family. (Ben Laird Photography)

Calgary playwright Dale Lee Kwong never came out to her dad. He passed away before she could tell him.

Instead, she wrote Ai Yah! Sweet and Sour Secrets, about how that emotionally-charged moment might have unfolded.

The play had its premiere Tuesday at Lunchbox Theatre.

The comedy, set on Chinese New Year's, features a quartet of characters: Jade (Kelsey Verzotti), her girlfriend Jennifer (Jamie Matchullis) and Jade's parents, Charlie (Ben Wong) and Lillian (Chantelle Han), all of whom come together for a Chinese New Year celebration unlike any other.

Even in the hypothetical what-if-I-had theatricalized version of her own life, it doesn't go well for Kwong's alter ego, Jade, the playwright said in an interview with The Homestretch.

Theatre as family therapy

"In some ways, this has been like family therapy since the first week in rehearsal," said Kwong, a longtime TV editor who won the Discovery Prize in the 2006 Alberta Playwrighting Competition for Sweet and Sour Secrets.

It may have taken more than a decade to have its world premiere, but Kwong is thrilled that her story has finally found a theatrical home.

Jamie Matchoullis and Kelsey Verzotti in Ai Yah! Sweet and Sour Secrets, Calgary playwright Dale Lee Kwong's comedy that won the Alberta Playwrighting Competition's Discovery Prize. (Benjamin Laird Photography)

"It's important that people of colour get to see their stories on stages," Kwong said. "To me, this is a story that hasn't been told [yet]. I mean we have heard coming out stories and continue to hear them, but that aspect of [telling a story that incorporates] cultural identity and your sexuality being a conflict is sort of new."

Connecting with her culture

For Verzotti, who joined Kwong in the CBC Calgary studio for the interview, having the opportunity to play Jade represents another sort of opportunity.

"I haven't had a chance to play a Chinese character yet, and being half-Chinese, it's really special to be able to connect with my culture and my identity in that way," she said. "I'm learning so much through this play about Chinese culture that I had no idea about before, which is really, really special for me."

Even Kwong, who wrote it, didn't know some of the cultural customs that her characters do in Sweet and Sour Secrets.

"There's a scene with ancestor worship stuff in it, and my family is actually third generation Chinese, and we don't actually do that — so I had to Google some stuff myself," Kwong said.

And for those who think Chinese New Year's came and went last weekend, think again. 

"A lot of people don't know that Chinese New Year actually lasts two weeks," Kwong said. "It's not a one-day thing. 

"Chinese New Year's has a lot of rules to it. Some are you clean up your old debts, get your hair cut, get prepared for the new year and make amends.

"A lot of the play is about making amends before Chinese New Year ends."

'Based on the truth of my dad'

And even though her dad never got the opportunity to see it produced, Kwong says his spirit permeates the play.

"I've been crying a lot lately," Kwong said. "Even just telling people about the play.

"I really feel like my dad has been blessing the play," she said. "One of the characters in the play, Charlie, is based on the truth of my dad — his personality — so it's been really wonderful spending time with my family."


With files from The Homestretch

About the Author

Stephen Hunt

Digital Writer

Stephen Hunt is a digital writer at the CBC in Calgary. Email: stephen.hunt@cbc.ca

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