In the intimacy of the VAULT Festival pit, Freedom Hi takes its audience through a hard-hitting, emotional, and oftentimes difficult exploration of the ongoing Hong Kong protests. Rather than doing so through the broad lens of the news, it delves into the personal perspectives and experiences of protestors. Freedom Hi is a well-crafted, well-choreographed, and artfully created show that stitches together a collection of charged vignettes, each distinct yet captivating, to form a comprehensive image of the terrifying crisis that has enveloped Hong Kong, and the fight that has consumed its people.
Photo Credit: Erin Guan
Framed by the charismatic and beguiling Puss in Booth and her radio show, we are taken through snapshots of the lives and experiences of individuals involved in the protests. We are introduced to characters who have their own distinct roles, which each represent a different aspect of the protests, and who provide clarity that emerges as their stories are pieced together.
The show is smart in that it knows and plays into the fact that its audience is, largely, Westerns whose knowledge of the protests is likely limited to what they have picked up here and there from social media, a few minutes of television, word-of-mouth. Certainly, I was guilty of this as well. It is very easy for us, being physically separated by distance but also desensitized by the frequent news coverage Hong Kong receives, to forget the true horrors of the situation but Freedom Hi refuses to let us take the easy way out.
It begins with the basics and takes us through the beginnings and background of the protests, but as it goes on, the focus shifts to the protestors themselves. What was once distant becomes personal, and we are faced with the all-too-real human struggle currently taking place in Hong Kong. What permeates through the entire show is a feeling of unrelenting humanity, and the unwavering pursuit of freedom. It accuses those who are unjust and those who are complacent to injustice, refuses to allow us to be ignorant any longer, and forces us to confront reality.
Accented with flowing, interpretive contemporary dance, frequent fourth wall breaks, and smart symbolism, much of the show is left in its subtle yet powerful subtext. It is worth watching twice, once going in cold and again to catch the bits that you might not have noticed the first time around. The performances are raw and sincere. The cast is fired up, and their connection and commitment is palpable. It feels honest in ways that are often lacking in mainstream theatre and the drive is powered by the sort of bond and energy that can only be found in independent shows such as this, which are crafted carefully and deliberately through the love and hard work of a small group of artists in it together.
Of note is the unique interactivity of the show. The use of the mobile messaging app Telegram was present throughout the piece to indicate how and when the audience should interact with the cast, as well as for audience members to send in words and phrases that would become part of the show’s dialogue, effectively altering the very outcome of the show. Although the finale largely is dependent on the people present on any particular performance night, what I saw was a moving final image of strangers coming together to deliver a message of hope in one strong, unrelenting, unified voice.
It is hard to say exactly what conclusion one should come away with as Freedom Hi closes, but that may be precisely the point. Freedom Hi is a story of uncertainty of a conflict that seems to never end. It is a story of the fear that each new day will be worse than the last. It is the story of people fighting a raging storm with all their might, who can only hope that there will be a sun behind those clouds. But, perhaps above all, Freedom Hi is also a story of the unity that arises out of that uncertainty.
'Freedom Hi' is a production of Papergang Theatre and was on at the VAULT festival 2020.