In Julia Cho's 99 Histories, a young woman returns to her Korean mother's house. She is pregnant, alone, unsure what to do next. A onetime musical prodigy who stopped playing the violin when she was diagnosed with a never fully defined mental illness, she has broken up with Joe, the man who loves her; given the illness she carries, she fears for her unborn baby's future. This is a small, slight, dreamlike play, full of ghosts and memories; the strongest focus is on the intense and troubled relationship between mother Sah-Jin and daughter Eunice — a relationship that leaves many things unspoken.
Memory is treacherous. In one sequence we see a young American soldier taking piano lessons from a white-clad Korean woman, and for a few moments you think you're watching the story of Sah-Jin's long-ago courtship. But this woman turns out to be someone else entirely. A family friend, says Sah-Jin, except that isn't true, either. Then there's the puzzling scar on Sah-Jin's neck that Eunice saw as a magical star when she was a child but eventually comes to realize resulted from a tracheotomy. The elusiveness of truth in 99 Histories, the reliance on metaphor and evocative imagery to compensate for fuzzy fact, reminds me of both Maxine Hong Kingston's reality-shifting biographical novel The Woman Warrior and Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. I kept thinking of the mother's mysterious comment to her daughter in the latter: "Your father is not my first husband. You are not those babies." But that comment is eventually explained, and several in 99 Histories aren't. Cho also lacks the mature artistry of Tan and Hong Kingston; this feels like an early work. The names of famous pieces of literature keep coming up. The boy's voyage on his wooden toy in D.H. Lawrence's The Rocking Horse Winner is compared to Eunice's onetime passion for her music — and though I remember the story only dimly, I do know this isn't an apt or evocative comparison. Eunice periodically mentions the stubborn mysterious silence of Melville's Bartleby the Scrivener. Why? And as she pens journal entries addressed to her unborn child, she thinks again and again of Rilke's Letters to a Young Poet — which, truthfully, feels pretty grandiose. As do the descriptions of Eunice's astounding talents as a young violinist. Wouldn't promising, even brilliantly promising, have been sufficient? But then every character in this talky play takes him- or herself with great seriousness, and every piece of action is presented with unyielding earnestness and a cloak of sometimes effective, sometimes clunky poeticism.
Jeong is a word that Eunice ponders throughout. In Korea, it denotes a kind of love, a going out of oneself toward the other person, an empathy or emotional thread. Sah-Jin says it can refer to "someone to help make you who you are," and she tries ceaselessly to bring Eunice back to her own center and remind her of the musical prodigy she once was. "That is in you," she tells her daughter. And "I miss what you were so much."
Theatre Esprit Asia — TEA — is the first Asian-American company in the Rocky Mountain region, and 99 Histories concludes its successful inaugural season. The play is presented in Vintage Theatre's intimate, funky black-box space, which doesn't allow for technical magic, so execution relies on the concentration and integrity of the actors, under the warm-spirited direction of Terry Dodd. They rise to the occasion. It helps that there are very strong performances in the two leading roles. Sheila Ivy Traister is a gentle, quiet force of nature as Sah-Jin and Tria Xiong a passionately compelling Eunice. Over the years, I've seen a lot of mother-daughter scenes — horrific power struggles, comic explorations of universal misunderstandings, Hallmark card moments. But I've never seen the profound and helpless passion of this relationship as vividly depicted as it is in a scene close to the end of 99 Histories, a scene where the power of Traister and Xiong's performances align perfectly with Cho's script. "You didn't have to earn it," Sah-Jin says urgently of her love for her child, "and you don't have to repay it."
99 Histories is an imperfect script, but by the end Cho attains what she's been reaching for all along: a sense of the continuity of love and history, a reconciliation between past and present, the living and the dead.