#903: Opening Night

March 19th, 2018

Below a museum of genocide where paintings, photographs and relics pay tribute to the 2 million lives lost to the Khmer Rouge, in a basement with rigged-up curtains cordoning off the paperwork, canned goods and other materials for Cambodian families needing services to set up life in Chicago, a woman opened her soul.

It was a one-woman show by storyteller Ada Cheng, and I did not intend to write about this. I went because my wife bought tickets. I went because a friend I hadn’t seen in too long was going too. I went to check out the museum upstairs (which I did), make some contact for a future story (did) and then grab dinner after (mission accomplished there as well).

But then Cheng opened her mouth and I couldn’t not write about it.

Ada Cheng is short to a noticeable level. She’s short and smiling, with a pixie cut of hair and long bangs flopping in her eyes. After introductory poems and pretension — the sine qua non of both the theater world and people who say things like “sine qua non” — she came out and flashed that smile, flashed those glinting eyes, opened her mouth and became a child again.

Gently, gently over the next few hours, she went from a 6-year-old in Taiwan crying for her mommy not to leave to a 27-year-old running away herself, leaving for America, academia and what she thought would be freedom. She took us from city to city, year to year, devastating relationship to devastating relationship.

I can’t explain it without losing some of the magic. Aside from the introductory play-acting as a child and a few bits of pantomime, they were just stories. It was just talking. But somehow it felt more real than the room.

When I remember the show, I don’t picture the basement of a Cambodian service center with some stackable plastic chairs and rigged-up curtains that cordon off the paperwork. I picture a payphone in Taiwan, a dance club in Texas, a fateful SRO transient hotel in Uptown. Even now, I’m picturing these places I haven’t seen but Ada’s words made real.

The world her words spun seem more real than reality, and that’s the highest compliment I can offer.

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