Theatre review: How Do I Let You Die?, Arts House

Michele Lee’s autobiographical tale of Hmong parents, death and ghosts raises intriguing questions, which resonate with the migrant experience.
'How Do I Let You Die?' by Michele Lee, performed at Arts House featuring Alice Qin. Photo: Sarah Walker.

For a play about death, Michele Lee’s How Do I Let You Die? was surprisingly chipper.

In February 2020, the playwright rang her parents every day for half-an-hour, to talk to them about death – ‘their death, the deaths they’ve endured here and in Laos, and the Hmong perspective on death’.

This 90-minute solo piece documented this process, and in doing so also recorded the wavering experience of migrant children dealing with their parents’ mortality in the face of cultural disconnection and the lives of some of Australia’s first Hmong migrants.

The result wasn’t so much narrative theatre, but more a blend of performance lecture, ethnohistory and autobiography. It never resolutely answered the titular question, but offered up a thought-provoking, albeit choppy exploration of mortality; just as there are multiple Hmong words for “ghost”, there are myriad ways to memorialise one’s parents when the time comes.

Transpiring through recorded phone conversations, a homemade Asian horror film and unadorned monologue storytelling, the piece was unsentimental and yet heartfelt. Lee was generous in her sharing of family history and Hmong culture, and juxtaposed well the detailed, individual experience with the collective questions faced by all migrant children.

The addition of Lee’s experiences writing ghost stories for TV and her own son’s bedtime fears added a satisfying generational thread. ‘I can’t write ghosts the way they want me to,’ she noted, but it was clear the ghosts Lee feels haunted by are cultural and emotional rifts in her familial relationships.

Alice Qin brought charm and playfulness as Lee’s proxy, blurring the lines between reality and performance. Her ability to effortlessly connect to the material was a testament to both her skill and the universality of the migrant experience discussed in the piece.

Without ever dipping into impersonation, Qin conjured a detailed double of Lee, recounting familial stories as though they were her own memories, but also with the respect and reverence they deserved.

This idea of doubling was cleverly extended in Qin’s costume, a duo-toned denim dress designed by Vanghoua Anthony Vue, also the set designer for the production.

The choice to perform the piece in traverse was strong, but let down by an incohesive set design promoting a confusing sense of place; a harsh, empty grey strip lined the floor, clashing with the fluffy pink speakers and the cluttered study desk also inhabiting this world.

Elissa Goodrich and Rafe Yang’s sound design added intrigue, sending percussive clicks and chicken clucks percolating around the room through a 16-channel speaker system. Rachel Lee’s lighting design inventively utilised a net and various fabrics suspended from the ceiling to cast ominous shadows across the space.

At times the piece perhaps leant a bit too heavily on multimedia to move the action along, with Qin equipped with a comically large clicker remote to control the various screens around her. With so many interactive surfaces, a projector aimed at the floor was visually exciting, but felt superfluous.

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Perhaps the most poignant detail in How Do I Let You Die? was the recurring use of sticky notes, hastily slapped onto surfaces to record the passing of a relative’s life, a simple but powerful metaphor that paid dividends at the piece’s climax. Like the piece itself, it spoke to a perpetuity within documentation that counters the impermanence of existence.

Perhaps then, the way to let one’s parents die lies not in ceremony of their body, but in preserving their stories for generations to come.

How Do I Let You Die?
Writer: Michele Lee
Director and Dramaturg: Sepideh Kian 
Performer: Alice Qin 
Set and Costume Designer: Vanghoua Anthony Vue 
Lighting Designer: Rachel Lee 
Sound Designer and Composition: Elissa Goodrich 
Sound Design and Composition Attachment: Rafe Yang
Filmmaker: Ari Tampubolon
Production Manager / Stage Manager: Reis Low 
Assistant Stage Manager: Celina Mack
Producer: Bureau of Works 
Sound Recorder: Strange World Studios / Justin Macawili

How Do I Let You Die? was performed from 22-26 November at Arts House.

This review is published under the Amplify Collective, an initiative supported by The Walkley Foundation and made possible through funding from the Meta Australian News Fund.

Lakshmi Ganapathy is an emerging journalist and theatre-maker who has performed at Melbourne Fringe, AsiaTOPA, Darebin FUSE and La Mama's War-Rak/Banksia Festival, and created content for La Trobe University, ArtsHub, RMITV and C31. She is currently the Melbourne Content Creator for Indian Link Media Group, an award-winning publication empowering the South Asian diaspora. She is also a passionate arts advocate, helping run various campaigns to save theatre at La Trobe, and is the Secretary of the Australian Women Directors' Alliance. In her spare time, Lakshmi enjoys crochet and taking photographs of flowers for her Instagram @lakshmilikesflowers.