👻 How Do I Let You Die? by Michele Lee

How Do I Let You Die? is an insightful journey into the cultural and spiritual limbo of a second generation immigrant

👻 How Do I Let You Die? by Michele Lee
Image: Sarah Walker

Michele Lee's auto-ethnographic work How Do I Let You Die? details a series of phone calls she had with her parents in February 2020–asking them about their journeys from Laos to Australia, their families, and spirituality. Lee is a Hmong-Australian writer, and the work charts her parents ghost stories, Hmong funerary customs, and their experiences of otherness.

There's a lot going on here; the show ricochets between recordings of Lee's conversations with her parents, Alice Qin's performance as Michele Lee reflecting on her parents lives, and a lo-fi film starring Qin and a Hmong spirit.

Each of the individual parts of the show are a joy to watch, but in conjunction they lack a sense of togetherness that would tie the work together. The film follows Qin-as-Lee making peace with the spirits that surround her on the daily. It's vignettes are equal parts funny and endearing, and serve as a gentle introduction into Hmong spirituality. Unfortunately, the film's emotional arc is out of sync with the phone calls and reflections that happen live.

The switching between different modes of performance and their accompanying sentimentality also slows the pace of the work, making you really feel all 90 minutes of the show. Here though, that's not necessarily a bad thing. The slowness gives the storytelling space to breath, and for us to take time to understand what Lee is getting at.

Alice Qin's performance as Michele Lee is convincing–the friends I took to the venue didn't even realise that Qin wasn't the writer. She inhabits her emotional world well and is an excellent guide through the subject matter.

The design and staging of the work relied upon lots of multimedia. Presented in traverse, there were screens at either end of the playing space, and at times the white floor was also projected upon. Qin brandished a large pointer at times, to gesture to images and diagrams on the screens. At one end of the stage was the desk from which Lee presumably developed the work, covered in post-it notes. Above us was a construction of nets which rose and fell through the beats of the story, casting ghostly shadows on the white stage floor. While exciting, some of these design elements felt disjointed, and like the structure of the work, never came together to fully present a cohesive vision.

Post-it notes were a recurring motif throughout the work. When stories of death emerged in Lee's parents lives, a bright post-it note was placed on the periphery of the stage serving as a reminder of those that came before. I understand what this was trying to achieve, but there just weren't enough post-it notes on the large stage to give them the weight they deserved. In saying that, one of the final moments of the play was a beautiful waterfall of post-it notes cascading over Lee which was a highlight of the piece.

This was then followed by a re-enactment of a Hmong funerary ritual, and while it was a fitting ending to a work asking how you can let your parents die, it undercut the theatricality of the preceding moments, making the work feel like it wasn't quite sure how to finish.

Other reviews of How Do I Let You Die? speak to the work's weaknesses as a piece of theatre–but I think the lens of autoethnography is a much more useful one to interpret and evaluate the production. Research into yourself, and your culture, like what How Do I Let You Die? attempts is messy. Goals can be hard to pin down, methodologies are unstructured, and results can be nebulous–but that's part of the fun of it all. Knowing is a tricky business, especially across cultures, geographies, and generations, but the pursuit of embodied cultural knowledge like this is terribly important.

The methodologies employed by Lee are exciting, and ones that I think I want to begin to use in my autoethnographic work. I left Arts House feeling both artistically inspired and excited. While the work had its shortcomings, its ambition was undeniable and infectious. One of the final phone calls between Lee and her parents stands out to me, where Lee's father apologises for being distant with her growing up–the emotional potency of that moment was unforgettable, and made it well worth the watch.

How Do I Let You Die? is an insightful journey into the cultural and spiritual limbo of a second generation immigrant. Lee's t̶e̶x̶t̶ research is skilful, poetic, and accessible, allowing us to relish this story. I would love to see this re-staged and developed further.

How Do I Let you Die? is at Arts House until 26 November. You can get tickets here.