Homecoming: Puppeteering Diasporic Identities Through Humanity and the Non-human

Written by Chee-Hann Wu.

Image credit: puppets by the Mark Nicolson /Flickr, license CC BY 2.0

Taiwan is an island with a long history of migration and colonialism. Since the first Austronesian peoples settled in Taiwan eight thousand years ago, immigrants both permanent and temporary have contributed to the social and cultural diversity and conflicts of the island. Homecoming 微塵望鄉 is a 2017 production by Puppet & Its Double Theater 無獨有偶工作室劇團 featuring Lily 馬莉莉, daughter of veteran father and immigrant mother, and Paochi (寶枝), Vietnamese caregiver who takes care of Lily’s dementia inflicted farther.

The play unfolds the multilayered relationships between characters, their circumstances and their sense of belonging by portraying each individual’s journey through misunderstanding, suffering, sense of loss, separation and dislocation. Homecoming complicates the notion of home, migration, identity and diaspora through Lily’s encounter and confrontation with Paochi, as well as her own struggles to find her roots. Lily is in conflict with her paternally-derived identity as a second-generation Taiwanese immigrant and also despises her maternally-derived Vietnamese identity. Homecoming raises questions about the conceptualisation of “home” — what and where is home? Why do we leave it? This production brings actors and puppets together onstage, along with the use of shadow puppetry and realtime projection, and further shows their potential power to transcend the boundary between the unrepresentable and undocumented diasporic experiences, memories and sensibilities of migrant workers and new immigrants through embodiment.

Home refers not only to a geographical location or physical space, but also a sense of familiarity, connectedness and belonging. In Homecoming, the concept of home is at the centre of conflicts that generates feeling of loss, uncertainty and directionlessness. This anxiety towards home is portrayed through Lily’s dysfunctional family and her sense of rootlessness, as well as Paochi’s journey from Vietnam to Taiwan, her nostalgia and anticipated return. These emotions and sensibilities are all explored and further embodied through different mediums, allowing a multilayered engagement with the experience that is hidden deep inside one’s consciousness and is difficult to describe. Director Cheng Chia-yin 鄭嘉音 experiments with mediums and materials in order to tell the story of the struggles of migrant workers, new immigrants, and their memories and nostalgia.

In fact, there are only two puppet characters in the production. One is the child Lily, and the other is her elderly father. Lily’s father, always positioned on the side of the stage, is portrayed by a human form puppet and brought to life by several puppeteers. Besides the two puppets, realtime projections present to the audience different dimensions of a character’s life experience. At the beginning of the play, Lily appears confidently and cheerfully promoting tour packages to Vietnam. However when she appears off camera, the audience understands how cynical and resentful she actually is; for her, Vietnam is merely a product for sale. She feels completely alienated from that “place,” that country. In contrast to the beautiful Vietnamese sceneries shown on screen, Lily’s complicated sentiment toward Vietnam reinforces the irony and ambivalence of her role and her partial self as a Vietnamese descendent. Moreover, being surrounded by the sceneries projected on the huge screen, Lily’s body seems to be devoured by the imagery of Vietnam and by her unwillingness to face that part of herself.

Shadow play is adopted in the production to unfold Lily’s childhood memory, her intimate relationship with her mother before the latter’s disappearance, and her accompanying feelings of fragility. Lily’s entangled emotions and perceptions of family and home are unraveled through the interplay of her actual body with the shadows that appear as an embodiment of her consciousness. Shadows invite imagination and personal interpretation of something materially non-present and also something not allowed to be represented. In the scene where lights and shadows touch on Lily’s body while she sleeps, the audience sees how dreams interweave with reality, past with present, childhood with adulthood, and how Lily’s animosity towards Vietnam intertwines with her private longing for home. The shadow play in the production can be regarded as a manifestation of Lily’s personal conflicts posting her actual body as self (which she has control over), and the shadows as Other on stage. While Lily appears at the centre of the stage, the audience’s focus is led not to the material presence of her body but to her shadows. The hallucinative nature of shadows shift the focus from the material presence to something that is unfamiliar, distant and physically not there – those of her mother, her childhood memories with her mother, and her ambivalent attitude toward her mother’s homeland, Vietnam. Lily’s mother does not physically appear on the stage in most scenes. However, her silhouette reunites with Lily’s shadow in this scene when Lily is having a dream and recalling those lost memories that have been buried deep in her consciousness.

It is through reimagining the past and reunifying with her mother in her dream (in the form of shadows) that Lily begins her journey to explore the meaning of “home” and the route to her “roots.” In addition to the depiction through realtime projection, “Vietnam”, like Lily’s mother, is always absent in the play. The notion of missing and being absent also speaks to the experiences of thousands missing migrant workers and undocumented new immigrants. They are physically present, but absent from any kind of governmental papers, and are forced to hide in the dark. The insubstantiality, according the Kenneth Gross in Puppet: An Essay on Uncanny Life, has “allowed shadows to be seen both as residues or traces of something palpable” and to “[make] present something latent or waiting to emerge.” This production aims to shed light on the darkness, on the absence and on the unspeakable. Resembling shadows, the notions of home, roots and nostalgia do not have physical presence, and yet they always connects to one’s actual body in various shapes and forms, and as an implication of the presence of something substantially absent.

Kenneth Gross says of the relationship between puppets and humans: “[w]e bring objects to life in a world where human beings made themselves into their own effigies. The life is provisional, always emerging, or recovered from life that has been lost.” In Homecoming, Lily’s feeling of loss is unfolded through her interactions with embodiments of various forms: the projections (Vietnam), the shadows (her mother) and the puppets (her father and her childhood self). These mediums show different parts of her which are either deprived, suppressed or forgotten, and they all contribute to the completeness of Lily’s self. Furthermore, puppetry is never adopted to imitate or recreate human’s reality in this production. The uncanniness of puppets, as well as other mediums, has the potential to transcend the very notion of embodiment and representation that has restricted people to pursue the surficial representations.

Chee-Hann Wu is a PhD candidate and teaching assistant in drama and theatre at University of California Irvine. This paper is part of the North American Taiwan Studies Association (NATSA) 2019 conference special issue. 

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