“Tu viens d’où?”
It’s a question drowned with subtext.
“Where are you from?” could as easily be “why do you look like that?,” or “why do you have an accent?,” or “what colour is your passport?” The notion of from-ness can be a frustrating and alienating one — it limits people to one-worded identities.
Bâtardes at Theatre Passe Muraille tackles “tu viens d’où” with full force, tracing fault lines in the hyphenated identities of sisters Chloé and Jade Barshee, who together make up Théâtre Everest. Raised in Québec and of Tibetan heritage, Chloé and Jade have lived a life of nosy questions — Bâtardes answers them definitively while also celebrating the sisters’ Tibetan roots. In joual-laced French, Chloé and Jade guide us through a childhood inlaid with languages and culture. A story about momos (Tibetan dumplings, not unlike potstickers) is complete with a comparison to Québécois tourtière, and a sequence in which the sisters skip rope features rhymes in both Tibetan and French.
Chloé and Jade aren’t alone onstage. They’re joined by their “monster” (Mathieu Beauséjour), a festively-fringed dragon who joins the sisters as they excavate their lives. The monster is a friendly beast, devouring momos by the fistful and artfully dancing through the TPM mainspace — and he’s a representation of the Tibetan culture just beyond the sisters’ grasp. In a moment of culture shock on a trip to India, the monster is a comforting familiar face — a reminder of family and tradition.
Chloé and Jade have written and directed Bâtardes themselves, and as such the piece feels incredibly personal and intimate. Numerous aesthetics (neon light-up sneakers, the monster, a truly staggering number of momos) come together in harmony, and the stories they tell are sharp and funny. Chloé and Jade have created a “patchwork blanket” of their identity, and it’s a feast for the senses, vibrant and textured. The play celebrates that these young women are, by their own assertion, “bâtardes” — bastards — of mosaicked heritage and culture.
While Bâtardes is delightful, for the most part, your mileage may vary if you don’t speak French.
The surtitles for Bâtardes are tiny and at the performance I viewed, often quite badly timed, offering little support to those who can’t keep up with the French narration. I’m about 70% fluent in French, and I would have appreciated functional surtitles to bridge the gap — I don’t know how much those with no working knowledge of French will take from this performance. The visuals are gorgeous, but they’re scaffolding for a text-heavy performance: readable, well-rehearsed surtitles are the missing piece which might elevate Bâtardes from good to great. This is an important play exploring the depths of an identity not otherwise found on Canadian stages, and I hope to see it again with more accommodations in place for a largely Anglophone audience.
Bâtardes runs at Theatre Passe Muraille through June 4. Tickets are available here.