Lucky, the new play by Marie Barlizo, is inspired by the story of Jennifer Pan, the young woman who hired a hit on her immigrant parents back in 2010. After attempting for years to be the perfect daughter within her traditional family, Pan faltered, dropping out of school, falsifying report cards, and lying to cover her tracks. When the lies began to catch up with her, she did the unthinkable and hired hitmen to murder her parents in cold blood.
While Barlizo was horrified at the murder, she found similarities in her own experience of growing up in a traditional household. She realized how the children of traditional immigrant families experience a particular form of well-intended pressure, a pressure that can be potentially devastating.
Now a mother to a five-year-old and seven-year-old, Barlizo is determined to take a different path with her own family. We spoke with her about the pressures of family, shame, and why she believes people ultimately have the power to change.
SDTC: How did you first come upon the Jennifer Pan story?
MB: Someone sent me Jennifer Pan’s Revenge, and I was so struck by that article, not only about what she did, but also because every Asian I know has lied about their circumstances. I don’t know any Asians who haven’t had some sort of misunderstanding or haven’t hid things from their parents because they come from traditional families. I understand because I’ve done that too. I flunked out of university and never told my father about it because it’s shameful.
What struck me were the conversations that happened in the comments. There was an outpouring about how people connected to her experience of living in this household. Where they stop, of course, was where she hired hitmen and went through with that. But there’s something to be said about this situation and how it’s so damaging to mental health. I work with young people, and I believe there is a crisis with mental health. To have these great expectations on top of everything else—it’s harmful.
Were you sympathetic to Pan?
I’m torn. She’s represented a certain way in the media because of what she did. Under those circumstances, I can understand why she was brought to that point. What I can’t understand is why she did what she did. I have conflicting feelings; it’s not a black and white situation. It’s a really strong story to tell about Asian culture, because it is difficult to talk about in our community, especially if you’re first generation. It’s very challenging to [tell] your parents that you’re not going to meet their expectation, you’re not going to be the surgeon or the lawyer or the engineer. You’re going to be an artist—a parent’s nightmare. Like, I sacrificed my life to get here, and you’ve decided to become a what?
How did your parents react to Lucky?
My father cried. We didn’t really talk about it, because its a very uncomfortable conversation.
I’ve had a challenging relationship with my father because he had very high expectations of me. I am his golden child. There were very high expectations both my parents had for me, and I failed them. I think the fact that I left my house—unlike Jennifer Pan—[meant that] I was able to confront the struggle of my decision to be independent. Freedom has a cost. Also, Asian families, especially Filipinos, work as a unit, because we’re so connected to our families. It’s very hard to make decisions like this, because you may not have the support of the family.
Why did you adapt it to a Montreal setting?
I don’t want to talk directly about Jennifer Pan. The conversation I want to have is about the harmful stereotype of the model minority and the great expectations. The first draft I wrote had more connections to the Jennifer Pan story, but I had to do major rewrites because the character of Jennifer Pan onstage is a lot for the audience to handle, and it distracts them from the actual conversation I want to have. Because she lied so much, she’s not a likeable character. Neither is my character, Nina. When you try to order a hit on your parents, you’re not likeable! But it’s trying to create an understanding of why this character is driven to this situation.
From your perspective, what is the way out of this pressure that young people face?
For myself—and I mentor young people as well for playwriting—what really helped me was talking to somebody. I sought counselling. The pressure of success and my fear of failure was so great that it prevented me from allowing myself to explore. I was so afraid, it disabled me. What really helped was talking it out with somebody and trying to develop coping skills to deal with my anxiety about failure and not being good enough.
You can’t be the best of who you are if you don’t try. That is something that I really worked on, but it’s been a struggle. Nobody’s perfect, but if you don’t try, you’ll never know, or grow. You need that outside perspective to get that understanding.
Can people change?
I have changed. I have been able to pull myself out. From the comments from the Jennifer Pan story, I know it’s still an issue today. Apparently it’s rare for Asian people to make the decision to go into theatre, and that’s part of why our stories aren’t told.
I want to change the narrative and give Asian women bigger, more challenging roles. As a community, we’re still trapped in the model minority stereotype. I don’t know the stats in Canada, but in the States, Asian women are the number one group of women who commit suicide. We don’t talk about it. We don’t talk about the pressure, the mental health issues and the stress we encounter, because it’s shameful. I want to be able to talk about it. It’s hard to go against your parents’ wishes and expectations. I want to open up that discussion because as a mother, I want to be able to have these conversations with my children.
Has this coloured your approach to raising your own kids?
Yes! I’m married to a French man and we live in Montreal, so I put my children in French daycare and a French school. Because my French isn’t great, I don’t really have a hands-on approach at school. Thankfully, my daughter is very enthusiastic about school and determined. I don’t pressure her; she’s very independent. I’m very happy about that. Maybe I should push a little [laughs]. But if I catch myself pushing I always say, “Wait a minute, what are you doing?” I try to figure out what my children are interested in rather than imposing what I think is better, or safer, for them. I may not like it or think it’s the best decision, but I want them to be able to make their own choices so that when they get older, they can make sound decisions for themselves. I want to make sure they know who they are and what’s best for them.
Have you spoken with your parents about your upbringing?
My parents are very traditional. My mother has supported me but has said [being an artist] isn’t a great future. My father doesn’t really talk to me about my work. He had a stroke two years ago, and I had to take care of his health needs. What I hear from his nurses is that he does talk about me, and my work, and how proud he is of me, but he could never say that to me. I just heard about this last week. It touched me and I couldn’t believe it, but it made me feel strong. He has so many regrets in life, and I don’t want to be that person, where I’ll regret not doing something because I’m so trapped in my fear.
Lucky runs January 10-20 at Factory Theatre (125 Bathurst St). Get tickets here.