Thursday, January 30, 2014

Diana Tso: Merging East and West

Though I was born here, I’ve always wanted to be in touch with my roots, to reinvent Chinese myths through my own voice, merging East and West.

- Diian Tso
Interview in Now magazine

Diana Tso is a Toronto playwright, theatre artist and storyteller.  A diminutive woman, she is brimming with talent and energy.  I first met Diana in 2010 through our mutual association with Toronto ALPHA (Association for Learning and Preserving the History of World War II in Asia). ALPHA was founded in 1997 by Dr. Joseph Wong and its mission, as stated on its website, is "to promote global awareness, knowledge and recognition of the history of World War II in Asia, and to educate the younger generations the values of humanity and global citizenship through learning, engagement and participation."

Born in Canada to Chinese parents, Diana graduated from the University of Toronto with an Honours B.A, in English Literature.  She is also a graduate of the Ecole Internationale de Théâtre de Jacques Lecoq, in Paris, France.  For over 15 years, she has worked with a variety of theatres internationally, including Ariane Mnouchkine's Théàtre du Soleil in France for their international atélier Stage 2000.  In 2001, she toured with Portugal-based Espiral Theatre, performing in giant clown masks.

Diana is probably best known for her play Red Snow, which she self-produced in association with Aluna Theatre and with the support of ALPHA, Canada Council for the Arts, Aluna Theatre, Ontario Arts Council, Toronto Arts Council and many others.  Red Snow is a love story, inspired by survivors of the 1937 atrocity in China in which 300,000 Chinese civilians were slaughtered  by Japanese soldiers in the city of Nanking (now Nanjing) and as many as 80,000 girls and women were raped in a span of six weeks.   “I never knew that the hatred between the two nations was so great that it resulted in a holocaust as brutal as the Jewish Holocaust in Europe," she told Now Magazine."

In her Winter 2013 article in U of T Magaine, "Nightmare in Nanking,"  Diana explains what prompted her to write Red Snow.

From elementary school through university I learned about the Second World War, but only about events in Europe. It was at home that my parents told me about the war in Asia. My mother remembered sitting on her father’s shoulders as people rallied in Hong Kong to raise money to defend against the Japanese army. My father said he had been chased and kicked by Japanese soldiers in Shanghai every time he and his mother left the protected French Quarter to buy rice. They spoke about the cruelty of the invading soldiers but never of the Rape of Nanking. Only in 1998, after stumbling upon Nancy Tong’s documentary In the Name of the Emperor, and meeting Iris Chang, who wrote The Rape of Nanking, did I learn about the depths of what had happened to my ancestors during the Second World War. I was shocked and angry that so little had been said about this “forgotten Holocaust” and that there had been no compensation for the victims of Nanjing from the Japanese government, which long denied responsibility. 

In researching Red Snow, Diana made several trips to Najing to interview survivors and visit sites. The play is about Canadian-born Isabel, who lives with her mother, Lily, and her grandfather, Gung Gung, an illiterate fisherman who escaped Nanjing after the death of his wife, Popo. Haunted by nightmares of her grandmother, Isabel is compelled to visit China in search of answers.  Her mission is to trace Popo’s painful history, which her grandfather refuses to discuss. Along the way, she meets and falls for Jason, a Japanese scientist, unintentionally creating a family conflict between cultures and awakening tensions between the past and present.  It is a journey that leads Isabel to discover some unsettling truths and to find enlightenment and healing.

Red Snow received development grants from Ontario and Toronto Arts Councils and had readings at SummerWorks Theatre Festival 2007, fu-Gen Potluck Festival 2008 and anitAFRIKA dub theatre in December 2008.  An excerpt from the play was published in Ricepaper Magazine in 2008.  On October 2, 2010, I had the pleasure of attending a public reading of Red Snow at the University of Toronto OISE as part of a three day ALPHA conference on WWII Asian history and education.  Diana read the part of Isabel and I was impressed by her performance and with the play itself.

Red Snow premiered in Toronto in January of 2012, the year of the Nanking massacre’s 75th anniversary. The following November, it was performed at the ACT Shanghai International Contemporary Theatre Festival in  Shanghai China and Diana hopes to take it to other parts of the world.

A long-time storyteller, Diana put forth a one-woman performance of Monkey Queen, Journey to he East. It was based on Wu Cheng-En’s Monkey King in his 16th century Chinese novel Journey to the West.  Created with the support of the Ontario Arts Council, it premiered at the 2010 Toronto Festival of Storytelling.  She continues to perform Monkey Queen at schools, libraries and festivals and is working on completing parts two and three of the sweeping trilogy.

As a theatre artist and writer, Tso regards words and movements as her figurative and literal paint brush.  "Every letter in Chinese is a painting and writing is a way of continuing our culture from one generation to the next." she has said.  "As a theatre artist, I don't paint with a brush, but rather with my body, blending words and movement."

On January 19, 2014, Diana participated in the second installment of the "Women Writing Letters" initiative for Gailey Road Productions.  Founded in January 2007 by Toronto playwright Tara Goldstein, Gailey Road produces theatre on social, political and human issues that impact women.  Its recent "Women Writing Letters" event took place at the Nexus Lounge at OISE  (252 Bloor St. West, Toronto). The theme was "A Letter to My Hometown" and Diana was one of four women who read their own poignant and beautifully crafted letters.  I was in attendance and had a good chat with the vivacious and talented Diana.

For more information on Diana Tso, check her website at

- Joanne