Re­defin­ing what are our plays

Dionne Chris­tian talks to those in­volved with two plays about their con­tri­bu­tions to NZ The­atre Month and how the sto­ries we tell are chang­ing

Weekend Herald - - Arts -

To­day marks the start of the first New Zealand The­atre Month, started by play­wright Roger Hall to “cel­e­brate and el­e­vate” lo­cal plays and play­writ­ing. It sees some 600 per­for­mances and 100 events staged by more than 70 or­gan­i­sa­tions, in­clud­ing pro­fes­sional the­atre com­pa­nies, com­mu­nity the­atre groups and schools.

‘YOU'RE PRETTY HOT — FOR AN ASIAN.’

It was a first date and drinks were go­ing well — un­til Chye-Ling Huang's date ut­tered those six words loaded with gen­er­a­tions of so­cial con­di­tion­ing, racist at­ti­tudes and pre-con­ceived ideas.

Huang, who co-founded Auck­land-based Proudly Asian The­atre with co­me­dian James Roque, ad­mits to feel­ing con­fused.

Af­ter all, the per­son blurt­ing out the back­handed com­pli­ment was her­self bi-racial with Asian her­itage but had just said she only ever dated white peo­ple.

“I said, ‘If you were white, I prob­a­bly would have thrown my drink at you and just left,' '' Huang says.

“It would have been game over but, be­cause they were Chi­nese, I was so con­flicted be­cause I've been there with this in­ter­nalised racism to­ward your own peo­ple.

“I just felt a huge em­pa­thy to­ward her be­cause I know that, as di­as­pora, you do grow up learn­ing that white peo­ple are the goal, white peo­ple are the prize. I stayed to talk about what she said but, in the end, I de­cided I didn't have time to be any­one's learn­ing curve.''

The tim­ing of the ex­pe­ri­ence was un­canny given Huang has writ­ten and is di­rect­ing the play Ori­en­ta­tion. It's a so­cial satire that fol­lows a young Chi­nese-Pa¯ keha¯ wo­man, Mei, in a brazen “sex­plo­ration” of Asian love and sex­u­al­ity in con­tem­po­rary New Zealand.

With an all-Asian cast, Ori­en­ta­tion digs deep at so­cial at­ti­tudes to­wards Asian peo­ple as lovers and con­sid­ers what part race plays in de­ci­sions made around love and sex. Natasha Bunkall plays Mei, the young wo­man work­ing through some iden­tity is­sues.

“She feels that she's only ever dated white men in the past; she's work­ing out why that is, her per­sonal and iden­tity is­sues around be­ing bira­cial, so she's de­cided to date Asian men and see how she goes to get to a point that she's not see­ing race.''

Huang says many of us think at­trac­tion is in­her­ently bi­o­log­i­cal but she be­lieves it comes down to so­cial­i­sa­tion too: “If you're raised to think white peo­ple are bet­ter than your own race . . . and let's not for­get there are white men who fetishise Asian women. No one is born think­ing like that.''

Huang and Proudly Asian The­atre's work cen­tres around iden­tity politics but she ac­knowl­edges its last play, Call of the Spar­rows, was far re­moved from mod­ern-day New Zealand. She says Ori­en­ta­tion is “close to the bone” be­cause it's set in the here and now and she wanted it to re­flect the Auck­land di­as­pora ex­pe­ri­ence in 2018.

Ask Bunkall and fel­low ac­tor Mayen Me­hta if Huang's script rings true and they'll tell you they recog­nise the char­ac­ters and the sit­u­a­tions they find them­selves in. They're both fa­mil­iar with the term “no rice, no spice” on dat­ing web­sites, which in­di­cates no one Asian or In­dian should bother “swip­ing right”.

They're quick to add that it's only one Asian story in a re­gion teem­ing with tales wait­ing to be told, but they're pleased Huang and PAT are chal­leng­ing stereo­types and mov­ing Asian voices into the main­stream.

‘I DON'T WANT TO BE PI­GEON-HOLED.’

Play­wright Al­bert Belz, who's writ­ten about ev­ery­thing from life in a vil­lage at the foot of the Urew­era Ranges, a Ma¯ ori show­band tour­ing dur­ing the Viet­nam War and Jack the Rip­per, is re­flect­ing on his lat­est play.

Called Cra­dle Songs, it's pro­duced by Te Re¯ hia The­atre and will con­tinue re-defin­ing what we think of as “New Zealand plays”, in par­tic­u­lar work by Ma¯ ori play­wrights. Belz won the 2018 Adam Award for Best Play by a Ma¯ ori Play­wright for the story, which is set in the south­west of Ire­land in 1999, at a nun­nery near the fic­ti­tious vil­lage of Sibeal (County Kerry). Here, two young women — one Ma¯ ori, one Aus­tralian — are on their big OE when they come face-to-face with the su­per­nat­u­ral force of Briar Faith.

Belz says it's a hor­ror that fol­lows Yours Truly, his thriller about Jack the Rip­per. Partly in­spired by see­ing the pro­duc­tion Hor­ror at last year's Auck­land Arts Fes­ti­val, he and Cra­dle Songs’ direc­tor Tainui Tuki­waho have taken some of the tricks and tropes they saw to cre­ate a story about a venge­ful spirit seek­ing utu.

“Get­ting to ex­plore the hor­ror and thriller gen­res of this show on the stage is some­thing I'm re­ally look­ing for­ward to,'' says Belz. “I want to put up a damn good ghost story that is both in­trigu­ing in the real-world set­ting and has real mo­ments of fear and ten­sion for our au­di­ences.''

The story has its gen­e­sis in a real-life tragedy. Belz was so saddened and an­gry when he found out about Ire­land’s Bon Se­cours Mother and Baby Home in Tuam, County Gal­way, that he wanted to write about it.

The home, run by Ro­man Catholic nuns, ran from 1925-61 os­ten­si­bly to care for un­mar­ried moth­ers and their chil­dren. It of­fered any­thing but care. In 2012, it was re­vealed that up to 1000 chil­dren had, with­out their moth­ers' con­sent, been il­le­gally adopted and sent to the United States and am­a­teur his­to­ri­ans pub­lished ev­i­dence about wide­spread in­fan­ti­cide at Bon Se­cours. The Ir­ish Gov­ern­ment re­sponded by set­ting up the on­go­ing Mother and Baby Homes Com­mis­sion of In­ves­ti­ga­tion. It's now be­lieved at least 800 ba­bies and tod­dlers died there.

“I think any sane per­son who's heard about this will feel an­gry,'' says Belz. “I think there's some­thing very hu­man about want­ing to take

those emo­tions and tell a story. Al­though I want my story to be en­ter­tain­ing, I don’t want to step on any­body’s dig­nity when I do that. It’s about ac­knowl­edg­ing that these things hap­pened and start­ing to tell the sto­ries.”

He says Cra­dle Songs asks ques­tions about blame and re­spon­si­bil­ity and reck­ons it would be ex­tremely bor­ing and lim­it­ing if, as a Ma¯ ori play­wright, he was ex­pected to stick to the script of telling sto­ries set in New Zealand, of New Zealand and about New Zealand.

The pro­duc­tion it­self is led by a Ma¯ ori the­atre com­pany, direc­tor and writer who are ded­i­cated to em­bed­ding tikanga Ma¯ ori into the way they work.

“The diver­sity of the voices that the man [Belz] puts out there is good for New Zealand writ­ers but also for au­di­ences to see the breadth of some of the story-telling,” says Tuki­waho, who be­lieves Cra­dle Songs will break new ground in our thriller and hor­ror the­atre.

It’s the first pre­miere of the year for Belz, who also de­buts Astro­man this year with si­mul­ta­ne­ous pro­duc­tions by the Mel­bourne The­atre Com­pany and The Court The­atre, fea­tur­ing full indige­nous casts on both sides of the Tas­man.

The Cra­dle Songs cast in­cludes sis­ters Donogh and Amanda Rees, Ni­col Munro, Briar Col­lard, Anna-Maree Thomas and new­comer Ari­ana Os­borne. Belz says get­ting the tone of his story right, de­vis­ing the spe­cial ef­fects and start­ing re­hearsals went well but the most chal­leng­ing as­pect was find­ing a young Ma¯ ori ac­tress to play one of the lead roles.

“They were all busy. Every­one had some­thing else on, which is a great thing be­cause it shows there’s work out there.”

Cra­dle Songs is pre­sented in as­so­ci­a­tion with Ko¯ anga Fes­ti­val and Go­ing West at Cor­ban Es­tate Arts Cen­tre from Tues­day, Sept 5 to Satur­day, Sept 8, and in col­lab­o­ra­tion with Q The­atre from Tues­day, Sept 18 to Satur­day, Sept 22. Te Pou The­atre’s Ko¯ anga Fes­ti­val is a fort­night-long cel­e­bra­tion that also marks the the­atre’s move to the Cor­ban Es­tate Arts Cen­tre. As its con­tri­bu­tion to NZ The­atre Month, Te Pou con­tin­ues its fo­cus on works in de­vel­op­ment.

Natasha Bunkall stars in Ori­en­ta­tion (right), which ex­plores the ex­pe­ri­ences of young Asians look­ing for love in con­tem­po­rary New Zealand.

Play­wright Al­bert Belz, cre­ator of Cra­dle Songs (be­low left).

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