25/06/2013 - 29/06/2013
THE ASIAN-AMERICAN DREAM
For the first time New Zealand, Asian-American playwright David Henry Hwang’s Obie Award winning work is brought to life onstage.
FOB takes us inside the world of America’s first and second generation Chinese immigrants living in LA in the late seventies. Focusing on cousins Grace and Dale, FOB (Fresh off the Boat) exposes the tension and hilarity that arises from wanting to fit in versus the struggle of holding on to cultural identity. When a mysterious traveller calling himself Steve arrives at Grace’s family restaurant, everything the cousins know about themselves is called into question: Is what they have built for themselves more important than where they have come from? Will they ever truly belong? And who is the traveller Steve; the famous warrior Gwan Gung, or just another FOB?
PAT Theatre was formed with the aim of bringing more Asian stories to the New Zealand stage. It was formed by Chye-Ling Huang and James Roque, both graduates of the Unitec Acting Programme.
Of Chinese descent, Chye-Ling Huang was featured in The Asphalt Kiss, The Dining Room and the sell-out season of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. She also helped devise and act in Ben Anderson’s well reviewed fringe show Just Above the Clouds. Chye-Ling aims to be involved with the growth of fresh new Kiwi-Asian theatre as the co-founder of PAT Theatre Company and is also currently collaborating on Renee Liang’s Paper Boats which focuses on young Kiwi-Asian women.
From the Philippines, James Roque was recently featured in Fractious Tash’s critically acclaimed production of Titus at Q Theatre. In 2013, he is also set to join Indian Ink Theatre Company on their new show Kiss the Fish. Outside of theatre, James is one of New Zealand’s young up-and-coming stand-up comedians. He was a national finalist in the 2011 RAW Comedy Quest and in 2011 appeared on TV3’s AotearoHA: Next Big Things. In the 2013 NZ International Comedy Festival, he was nominated for Best Newcomer with his first solo show James Roque is Chicken.
PAT’s company for the production of FOB also features Adam Moorhead as Director, Tayla Pitt as co-producer, Amanda Tito as Assistant Director and Benjamin Teh in the role of ‘Steve’.
PAT Theatre Company delivers a fresh look at this classic Asian-American play which bleeds the line between epic legendary tales and harsh modern realities, leaving us with questions about New Zealand’s own beloved multicultural society.
Dates: 25 – 29 June, 7pm
Venue: The Basement, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland
Tickets: Adults $18, Conc. $15
Hopeful and quite sincere takeaway message
Review by Joselyn Khor 26th Jun 2013
The show’s programme, designed like an Asian take-out menu, provides food for thought on Chinese takeaways of the deep-fried variety – possibly seen as tasty and fulfilling physical needs on a superficial level but artery clogging beneath the surface.
Could the same be said of racism? On a superficial level, such judgements may satisfy the hunger of a person’s ego to feel superior. Below the surface though, they are just as damaging to body and mind.
What about racists who hate their own race?
This idea plunges us into David Henry Huang’s Obie Award-winning story of an ABC (American Born Chinese) named Dale’s struggle to accept cousin Grace’s new acquaintance: a FOB – “Fresh Off the Boat” Chinese immigrant, Steve.
Director Adam Moorhead attempts to bring 1980s LA to the intimate Auckland city Basement Studio with his adaptation of the renowned US play.
The sticky subject of racism is bared from the start with Dale’s vitriolic monologue listing Chinese stereotypes: “Clumsy, ugly, greasy, loud, stupid, four-eyed …” etc
Propelling us into Dale’s conflicted world via judgements (FOBs are people “you wouldn’t want your sister to marry”), Henry Huang’s script shows the mind of someone seemingly ashamed of his own race. It is provocative and engaging. However, the incorporation of myth and fantasy detracts from the realism about racial challenges.
The description says, “PAT Theatre Company delivers a fresh look at this classic Asian American play which bleeds the line between epic legendary tales and harsh modern realities …”
Staging (boxes stacked stage right; a small table stage left, signify the interior of a Chinese restaurant) and costumes are basic. The characters don’t seem representative of the 1980s by being dressed in current fashion.
Without such details, what is presented isn’t so much a play bleeding the line, but eradicating it completely. Non-existent stage and costume changes means the mythical God and Goddess subplot is confusing to follow. Puzzling moments come when the characters of Steve and Grace suddenly transform into Gwan Gung and Fa Mu Lan.
The saving grace of the show is found in the entrancing performances of accomplished actors and Sam Mence’s lighting skills.
I can’t pick a standout in this powerful trifecta of performers.
There is a great jiggle to Benjamin Teh’s hips as he proves himself a performing powerhouse. Even the bullet-speed pace of his line delivery comes with its own flair. Dressed in a red dress shirt, black pants and tie, he provides comic relief. Not only that, he appears a reactive springboard for the other actors to bounce off. He can be likable, detestable or even heart-wrenchingly endearing, depending on which mask he wants his face to adopt.
As the ostentatious Gwan Gung, “God of war, writers and prostitutes”, he invokes a roaring reception from the audience. It is well played precisely because it is over-the-top. His commitment to the obnoxious character is commendable.
Becoming two, or even three, people in an instant is Teh’s strength: aggressive and pushy with Grace; reserved and humble with Dale. There’s even a scene – albeit slightly perplexing – where we see him as a poor migrant worker of the early 1910s.
Chye-Ling Huang initially wobbles in her interpretation of Grace. Teh’s overpowering performance seems to seep into her psyche giving her a meeker presence. She does, however, come into her own by declaring to Teh, “You really are an asshole.” There is an edge to her, which means she doesn’t appear the stereotypical vulnerable Asian female.
Huang convincingly conveys the emotional trauma of her character. There is a soft, memorable moment when Grace recollects her painful childhood, tearfully recounting the alienation she felt as a 10-year-old.
James Roque plays Dale with an almost mean-spirited ruthlessness. As an exaggerated racist against his own race, Roque’s Dale is almost exuberant in his criticism of Chinese immigrants. “Some parts are quite offensive,” comments a fellow audience member.
His mocking use of eyebrows and tone has the crowd in uneasy stiches. There is laughter but also recognition these words are bitingly discriminatory.
While the insistent use of insults may have caused the audience to turn on a less likable actor, Roque possesses a certain amiable quality. This allows us to see Dale as a tortured soul rather than an insipid bully.
His better moments though, come in the subtlety of facial expressions belying the horrible façade. Here the pain of a person fighting to “be himself” is revealing. This “true self” shows a person agonisingly unsure of his own cultural identity.
Roque and Teh pitted against each other make for an hilarious duo. One scene involving an eat-off is particularly saucy.
The resoundingly positive audience feedback seems to enhance the cast’s performance. By feeding off these vibes, we see increasingly vivacious line deliveries and gestures.
Sam Mence’s adept lighting design allows nothing to be taken away from the performances with swift, clean lighting changes. Spotlights and plain floodlights allow for an uncluttered look onstage. The use of basic, but effective, coloured lights add character to the scenes. Where a flood of red effortlessly pulls us into a raging battle scene, a flush of blue dips the stage into the eerie depth of Fa Mu Lan’s memory.
Little comes in the way of sound effects – apart from musician Han Huang occasionally playing a Chinese flute. Randomly seated up stage left in the corner, he initially takes attention away from the action. The actors capably draw us back as we progress along the story though.
The great strength of Moorhead as a director can be found in his precise, almost laser-like vision. He doesn’t allow for superfluous details. The actors flit from scene to scene, giving us a fast-paced show with snappy scene changes. The result is a show that ends while the audience is still alive and responsive.
Moorhead’s direction of the capable cast is admirable but an audience member makes a good point, noting there is a surface level touch to the production. We aren’t really told anything new about the challenges of multiculturalism/racism.
What seems to be missing is a certain privileged understanding. This comes from people existing in the particular minority group affected. Lacking a more profound reading of the script, the play resembles a puzzle with a missing piece. The picture is incomplete.
Certain kinds of “insider knowledge” may have brought a more authentic view to the challenges faced by ABCs and FOBs.
The takeaway message from this play is hopeful and quite sincere, but in a way, not all that satisfying, as far as takeaways go.
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