Kathy Ng’s latest play, Happy Life, is full of tentacles. That’s probably the best way to describe it: a tentacle play. She’s always liked tentacles. When they appear in Japanese porn, they’re vicious—swallowing up their prey in swirling fat webs, worming their way into hole after hole. It’s a disorienting swarm. Looking at early woodblock prints, your eyes swirl in every direction at once, trying to map a body beneath the maze of suction cups. There she is: a woman twisting against her shape. You see her and you don’t. She’s so contorted and transformed, she too seems to be something else. Beyond human.
When Kathy began writing Happy Life, she imagined a tentacle catastrophe. Tentacles thrusting straight through a home, obliterating a carefully made world in one cruel swoosh. In a sense, they do. A giant tentacle slithers through a boarded-up window in the final moments of her play, hovering over a ruptured apartment where a group of people huddle together. They cry out. The lights strobe. Originally, Kathy imagined the tentacles slamming down, horrible and merciless. But then she thought better of it, this treatment of an octopus. “It’s just here to survive,” she said. “It’s a thing as well.”
Now, the tentacle makes a quiet entrance. Around it, there is destruction and cruelty and pain, but the tentacle does not have anything to say on these matters. It simply is: a thing, hovering at the window like a blank-faced cow.
Kathy started writing Happy Life during the pandemic. She saw an open call from The Hearth—a theater company dedicated to plays by and about women and “people of underrepresented genders”—asking for a story about a space that comes alive. (The company stages another play on the same theme, Bailey Williams’s EVENTS, this December at The Brick.) Kathy sent in ten pages about a woman who emulsifies into her lemon-fresh apartment. In August, Happy Life finished its first staged run—a production directed by Kat Yen at the Walkerspace. It’s a play about people trying to become something else. A dead boy trains for his future as a soldier ant. A murdered woman reassembles her sliced-up body into a home. A fleeing housewife tries to live with dead birds. Their efforts start with little moves: an offer of coffee, cooking instructions. Measly drops in the can of transformation. Change turns out to be a savage process, one that requires humans to tear and rip, abandoning themselves to the tentacles pushing at their holes. It’s a swallowing, an obliteration, a bending that leaves them undone.
As a kid, Kathy doodled. During classes, she made twisted, unrecognizable creatures. For one year, it was a baseball voodoo doll, with big stitches around his eyes and bloody tears rolling down his face. Sometimes she drew on her body as well. She dug objects into her skin to see what the blood looked like when it pushed out of her arms in little drops. She thought it looked beautiful, the shiny beads.
Her body was like a piece of paper: both hers and not hers. She was a girl, and also a vessel carrying her parents’ wish for a happy life. Her family lived in an apartment in Hong Kong. It was a nice part of the city, but her grandmother still lived in something just a bit larger than a coffin apartment. Both her parents grew up that way. Her mother was the youngest of eight children. As a child, she worked at a music store to help support her family. She thought of becoming a pianist, but it never happened. So she signed Kathy up for lessons when she was three years old and told her to practice two hours a day. She bought her new shoes before she needed them. She told her that one day she would live in America.
Kathy had a cousin who went to Yale. When she was seven, he came back with stories of what it was like to live in the United States: the lawns were green, the buildings were castles, there was space. The idea was putty for every gap—it filled all the holes. After that, Kathy didn’t live in Hong Kong. She lived in the future: the time when she too would live in America. She enrolled in an international school where all the children were from different places. She got into Brown. She flew away.
At some point during high school, her dream changed. She didn’t want to become an American. She just wanted to be gone. Somewhere she could become a different kind of person. Anyone. She didn’t know who. She drew on her body and watched how it changed.
In America, everything was flat. All the buildings spread across the ground like loaf cakes. She walked around her new life feeling empty. It was just another place. She took immunology, failed chemistry. She could feel her family’s plan fluttering in her hand. Her roommate wanted to be an actress, and Kathy wanted to be her friend. So she signed up for a part as a fortune-telling tortoise in Alice in Wonderland.
She began taking performance classes. She learned how theater could cleave you from yourself, giving you the power to hop from one body to another, unspooling you in the process. A play could leave your head in little dissonant pieces scattered on the ground. She wanted that for herself.
A professor broke her arm, and Kathy missed her—so she wrote her first play imagining what the teacher did at home. A snail twirled onto the page to keep the teacher company. That was her first stage direction: the snail dancing. At the end of the play, the snail sprang up into a human girl, newly made.
Kathy began writing about things becoming other things, creatures peeling back their skins and gushing out in violent waves. She watched a National Geographic video about a parasitic wasp that injects its eggs into cocoons, leaving the sleeping caterpillars to burst open with maggots. She played the video again and again—the explosion bewitched her. She thought about this caterpillar becoming a butterfly, then becoming something else, something no less beautiful.
She wrote an opera about a boy carrying around a stomach of maggots. When he bursts open, he looks at them all, delighted. Here they are, his most twisted parts, more splendid now that they’ve unfurled beyond him. His old body is failing, turned to swiss cheese by the birth, but he’s full of wonder: “These holes, are they me, am I them, am I finally more hole than meat?”
Maggots enter your life to undo you. Scraping the putty out of each hole, they expose every chasm, then make more of them. Tentacles do just the same. In the Japanese prints, they find their way into every crevice of a body, pushing it open and filling it with something new. For Kathy, this image is painful, but also beautiful—a release from yourself. One of her characters in Happy Life is a woman who dreams of starting a feminist porn company dedicated to octopus sex. She imagines scenarios in which the tentacles find her. Daydreaming about the octopus’s multitudes, she sheds her body and becomes a verb. “And now, it is inevitable that the body becomes many doors,” she says. “The eyeballs eject themselves and spin out like planets rejecting their own gravity.”
How does a person do that—eject their eyeballs? In Happy Life, the process looks like this: two women stand opposite each other at the center of a room, sipping their coffee, and imagine how the octopus might come to them. Their words bleed over, then mix, one tendril of a fantasy leaching into another. It’s their second coffee date, and they think maybe they’ve found it—another person. They look at each other, and roll out two arms, loose like tentacles. Their tendrils meet in the air, and lap against each other in waves: amorphous as a snail dancing in space.
Beside this scene runs another—the play’s last violent gesture, a tentacle probing a broken home. The octopus enters with the same grace that two hands meet, but it is not a peaceful encounter. Things rip and tear. They bleed. These two scenes share one space, an anonymous apartment, but neither cancels the other out: they are too deeply incorporated. The horror of transformation and the beauty of release run beside each other, irrevocably mixed.
Lately, Kathy has been thinking about Hong Kong—the place she left in order to become someone else. She feels she never had the chance to know it. Growing up, her home was a temporary place: a vacant lot waiting to be filled by the future. She moved away, kept her distance. Then it erupted, and she turned back and stared. She looked and looked at the images of the 2019 protests, some of the largest in the city’s history, taking in the wild fluidity of their explosion. Here were the people she thought she had known—those quiet, careful people—bursting out of their old forms. A long tendril reached out to her. It hovered. She extended her own arm, reaching. And they mixed.