Before They Cut Down Our Tree ponders growing out of friendship

The coming-of-age play features queer Asian characters and magical realism

Two Asian women look at each other with their hands touching on a tree branch between them. They’re both wearing neutral colored shirts and they’re in a forest surrounded by trees.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Danny Guay

By: Petra Chase, Arts & Culture Editor

An almost universal experience of adulthood is learning to accept that friendships change over time. For playwright Karter Masuhara, this unspoken realization occurred at an old friend’s bridal shower. “When I went, it was awkward and I realized I didn’t know this person anymore and we probably wouldn’t be friends if we met in the present,” they told The Peak. Following this experience, their cathartic first play, premiering on stage at the Vancouver Fringe Festival on September 7, “flowed out” of them. Before They Cut Down Our Tree features a team of eight SFU alumni, including Masuhara.

The script was written in 2020–21, when they took part in the Vancouver Canadian Asian Theatre’s MSG Lab’s playwriting program. It “follows two ex-friends as they reunite after the death of a loved one and are forced to reconcile why they broke apart.” The play moves through a decade of time, flashing back to the event that ended their relationship, the secrets they’ve kept, and what’s changed since then.

Standing in the middle of this emotional storyline, and a central design element in the play, is a magical tree. This is the tree where the two friends, Sam and Cal (Jessica Wong and Emily Ma) “met up to hang out, do their homework, and have fun” during childhood. It’s also where they have their incalculable reunion.

Masuhara emphasized what it means to put on a stage-based story featuring their intersecting identities: As a “queer Asian non-binary person,” Masuhara shared, “I have not often seen [my identities] on stage, so I wanted to create a story that filled in that gap.

“It’s important to be able to have authentic representation as it helps people feel seen and also understood.”

After two public readings of the script and grant funding, Masuhara set out to assemble a team to bring the play to life, hosting a design workshop and auditions. The response was overwhelmingly positive — auditioners shared how excited they were to audition for a half-Japanese character, an identity not often represented on stage.

“What I have found from feedback from readings is that most people have been able to find something that they can relate to in this play,” Masuhara said. “Storywise, I think people who like character-driven emotional stories that feel authentic but have a touch of wonder/magical realism will enjoy this play.”

“I think people who like character-driven emotional stories that feel authentic but have a touch of wonder/magical realism will enjoy this play.”

The tree itself is “a character in its own right,” they continued. “It allows the characters to see past versions of themselves, so it changes a bit throughout the play.” Visual and sound design are a huge part of this play, mirroring the passage of time and emotions that occur within the characters. The childhood tree, which is afflicted with “heart rot,” clues audiences to the state of the relationship with the growing and shrinking of this rot, and adds a tinge of mysticism to a strikingly real situation.

As you can tell, the tree is a metaphor to Sam and Cal’s relationship with one another and we will see how the present versions of themselves have to confront the broken mess that became their friendship and if they can fix it before the tree gets cut down for good,” they said.

Masuhara assures there is also “joy and hope” to this story, pointing out how “each ending is the start of something new.”

Watch Before They Cut Down Our Tree at Performance Works at a show from September 7–17. Purchase a $16 ticket and find more information about show times on the Vancouver Fringe Festival website. Content warning: descriptions of “non-consensual acts and teen dating abuse.

Vancouver Fringe Festival is an alternative theatre festival that’s been running since 1985. This year’s festival features over 85 emerging acts. According to their website, “this year will see more theatre, comedy, dance, drag, spoken word and music descend on our doorstep than ever before!”

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