Last week I wrote a preview of Regarding O, a theatrical production by Herstory Polygon, for Still / Loud magazine. Now that I've seen it, I have some more thoughts. (Spoilers ahead.)
When I entered the theatre I expected Regarding O to be mainly cerebral. I interviewed Wilfred Wong and Miu Law the week before, and they spoke about their production in largely theoretical terms. In many ways, this is an attempt to render intersectionality: they invited seven transgender individuals to perform, but wanted to highlight their differences as much as their commonalities. The argument is that transgender experiences should be understood in gradients, and not as a monolith.
Regarding O surprised me with its visceral power. It avoided playing on usual emotions; it did not make me laugh or weep. What it achieved was something rarer, and better—it made me uncomfortable.
The production starts with an audio tour of the neighbourhood, and at first I feared it would be gimmicky. But the twist is that it inverts our gaze: normally, in museums and the like, the audio commentary would act as an information overlay for us to observe the world, detached. This time, the audio track manipulates us so that we are being looked at, and reinforces our status of being seen.
Multiple times in the tour, we are asked to “break the rules” and bear the consequences: acting weird in the MTR station, the wet market, and the public square. The people of Ngau Chi Wan stared. It was bearable, but then the commentary noted, “Doesn’t it feel better that there are others acting weird with you? I wish I had a friend like that too.” How well can I withstand the disdainful glare of Hong Kong people on my own? I’m not confident. I’m familiar with that coldness, for I too am guilty of it. With a look, people of our city police each other’s behaviour and identity.
The best thing about the tour is that it maps concepts onto real people. The narrator often tells us to study the passers-by, and this proximity is potent. My favourite moment happens in the wet market, when I’m told to observe the body language of the women (both shoppers and vendors) and imitate their walk. I failed, which is precisely the point: I am conditioned to ignore the differences, so I had trouble seeing it in the first place. And even if I could see it, my body wouldn’t know how to copy.
Once Regarding O returns to the black box, it adopts the techniques of reality theatre popularized by Rimini Protokoll. The screen at the back of the stage is split into “Yes” and “No”, and for each question, the performers choose their sides. The questions cut deep: do you feel you are beautiful? Do you think Hong Kong society has treated you fairly? Have you considered suicide? This device fulfills Herstory Polygon’s promise of diversity; even on issues such as LGBTQ+ equality there are unexpected divergences in opinion.
These Q&A are broken up by segments highlighting each individual: a few performers sing their own songs, some talk personal history, some talk politics. I’m particularly struck by Sho Leung’s story: after his surgery, he went to get a bespoke suit. When the tailor took careful measurements, it was a moving moment for him—he felt that it was an affirmation of his body, a “rite of passage.” When he dons the suit jacket on stage, it fits him perfectly.
Behind this reality theatre, one can sense there is a tricky balancing act: on the one hand, the production wants to let their performers talk. But on the other hand, it also needs to provide structure and momentum. I have issues with Regarding O’s pacing, as some beats felt uneven and others felt rushed; it would have been better if the play had more breathing room. (There are also some technical glitches, but that is a minor complaint given the huge amount of variables.)
Regarding O creates incisive fragments—of curiosity, dread, and even epiphany—but it doesn’t find unity. There are some threads, from the audio tour for instance, that I hoped to be developed and resolved later on, but they were left hanging. Maybe that’s not a bad thing, since the creators explicitly said they didn’t want this production to be neat. But a little more focus can help.
When I interviewed Wilfred and Miu, they told me Regarding O is not just about transgender people, but also the plight of Hong Kong citizens, and how we can move closer to social justice. Personally, I’m thankful they made that connection.
At two points in the production, the audience member is offered a choice. The first choice occurs at a rooftop community garden in Ping Shek Estate; the garden is behind a short, locked gate and we are told we can either jump it or not. I did. Joshua Wong et. al. had just been jailed for doing the exact same thing, and I felt this was the right thing to do, symbolically.
The second choice occurs near the end of the production, when the audience is invited to join the “Yes No” game. The question is, do you think sacrifice is required for social justice? I chose Yes. The next question is, will you rather sacrifice yourself or sacrifice others? I was among the minority that chose the latter. This was barely three, four questions in and I felt there would be an opportunity down the line for me to qualify that position, or to justify my selfishness.
And then the play ended.