The First Asian AB

Basement Theatre, Lower Greys Ave, Auckland

13/09/2011 - 18/09/2011

Hamilton gardens, Victorian Garden Conservatory, Hamilton

22/02/2012 - 25/02/2012

BATS Theatre, Wellington

22/09/2011 - 01/10/2011

The Real New Zealand Festival

Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival 2012

Production Details

Willy’s a homestay Asian student. Mook’s Samoan and he’s been here for ages. They’re best mates at Timaru Boys High. But when Willy decides his dream is to try out for the All Blacks, mateship — and everything else — is up for grabs.

A warm feel-good comedy with serious undertones, The First Asian AB is a new play from acclaimed New Zealand playwright Renee Liang (The Bone Feeder, Lantern).“Coming from an inherited immigrant background, with a ‘difference’ which is sometimes more visible to others than to myself, I often wonder “What defines me as Kiwi?”says Liang. “Often the best way to answer such a question is to play it out – and that’s exactly what I’ve done in this play. Rather than being a play ‘about’ rugby, it’s a play that ‘contains’ rugby.”

A non player and someone who confesses to “never really getting the game”, Liang has been something of a surprise conversion. As she was writing the play, she put herself on a “training regime” which involved hanging out with rugby-mad friends, going to games and even learning some basic tackling skills. The result was a newfound respect for rugby.

“I’ve become fascinated by its place in our culture,” Liang says. “Even for people who have no connection to the game, it has a kind of magic – something that we define ourselves by. Why is that? What happens when that thought is taken too far? To me, rugby is about knowing ourselves and our teammates, how we support each other under pressure, and how that is achieved by spending enough time together. It parallels the way friendships work.”

Embodying the two friends, NZ-born Samoan Mook and Malaysian immigrant Willy, are real-life friends Paul Fagamalo and Ben Teh. Both of them cite their immigrant backgrounds as creative inspirations (Fagamalo was born in NZ after his parents came from Samoa in the early 1980s, Teh was 16 when he first moved to Auckland to study from Singapore).

Teh, now studying film scriptwriting at the University of Auckland, and Fagamalo, a full time actor, got to know each other while working on projects with Stage Two, the University drama club. “There’s so many amazing stories, what happened to people after they came over,” Teh says.

Fagamalo agrees. “There’s good and bad. The best way to deal with it often is by laughing.”

Liang admits to hiding personal anecdotes in the play – hers and her friends’. “I feel it’s time to tell the story of the ‘1.5’ generation – those who immigrated, but grew up here.” She’s excited to be mentored in her script writing by veteran playwright, actor and director Oscar Kightley, who wrote such groundbreaking plays as Niu Sila and Fresh Off The Boat in the 1990s (about the immigrant Samoan community). She cites these productions as influential in her decision to become a playwright. “Plays are really powerful. They allow us to say things and examine issues while still letting people enjoy their night out.” 

with live music by Andrew Correa (People In Harmony, The Bone Feeder) The  debuts as part of the Real NZ Festival to celebrate the Rugby World Cup 2011.

, 438 Queen St, Auckland

The Real New Zealand Festival  

Reviewer quotes:
“Written and performed with a lightness of touch, a winning charm and plenty of humour.” – Dominion Post
“Plenty of laughs and a whole lot of honesty…The First Asian AB proves that rugby in this country is about heart.” – Theatreview
“A sensitive and wide-ranging meditation on the immigrant experience….exuberant physical humour.” – NZ Herald 
Hamilton Gardens Arts Festival, shows 22, 23 and 25 February 2012

Actor – Benjamin Teh 
Actor – Paul Fagamalo
Musician – Andrew Correa (Auck); Robbie Ellis (Wn & Ham)  

Lighting Design – Sam Mence (Auck, Ham); Deb McGuire (Wn)
Operator – Sam Mence (Auck); Fern Karun (Wn)
Writer and Producer– Renee Liang
Coproducer – Chris Tse
Dramaturg - Oscar Kightley
Publicist – Brianne Kerr
Graphic designer – Jeong Yeun Whang  

1hr 30min, no interval

Local bromance a winning combo

Review by Mark Houlahan 23rd Feb 2012

It won’t happen overnight, as they say, but it will happen. Sooner or later a New Zealander of Asian descent will become a proud All Black. Where will he come from? How will he have learnt the arcane arts of the rugby field? How will his family deal to this? What, indeed, becomes of all those rugby dreamers?

As the professional rugby circus staggers to life again, and in the same week so many parents are dispatching children to tertiary programmes, the entwining issues which enthral a sport-mad nation and the classic issues of childhood (“What shall I do now? What shall I ever do?”) could not be more relevant.

That sounds earnestly sociological, like a slow hour on the National programme. In practice Renee Liang has carved a very lively play, an excellent addition to the surprisingly small number of NZ playtexts that deal with rugby’s centrality in local mythology. Here she is well served by terrifically committed performances.

The Victorian Conservatory is a large, t-shaped glass house. On a typically sweaty summer night inHamilton, it was great to be indoors just watching the rain through the glass. This is an intimate performing space. You can watch every move the actors make, and see all the instruments Robbie Ellis, musical director, picks up to provide live sound. Most impressively you can really see the actors sweat. As they spin through dozens of characters, they sing, they dance, they work out, haka, eat and fight, so they get to sweat a lot.

At heart this is a local bromance. In 1995 Michael, a Samoan New Zealander whose parents run the local dairy, meets Willy, an exchange student from Kuala Lumpur on his first day at Timaru High. Over 80 minutes we see the next fifteen years of their lives. The staunch mother back in KL; the hard working Samoan parents; the rich rugby nut with sky tv; the patronising teacher; the host mother, with her weird attempts at ‘asian’ cuisine … Through it all Michael becomes Willy’s guide to this strange land he has come to.

The stage is thick with characters, necessarily quickly sketched, but the writing is evocative, and warm chuckles greet each new person.

Benjamin Teh and Paul Fagamalo between them play all the characters. Props are mimed, and there are no costume changes, just simple coloured t-shirts, long short or rolled up jeans. The only set pieces are two wooden benches. The actors are terrific: they quickly bring each character to life. They love them equally, for Liang’s script has no villains. And they play brilliantly, physically with each other. They form a small team, but a tight one.

The laughs come easily here, but in the last sequences the tone deepens. Whose path should you follow in life? Yours or your parents? Is the cost of sporting success too high, and would it be safer to find a profession? What dreams will your children in turn inherit?

Teh and Fagamalo inhabit this world so winningly, and Liang has coached them so skilfully, that we had much to ponder as we went off in the drizzling night.


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Not about the rugby

Review by Lynn Freeman 29th Sep 2011

First I, George Nepia at Circa and now The First Asian A* B* at Bats – the RWC, whether it goes our way or not, deserves a big cheer for much of the art we’re seeing courtesy of the Real NZ Festival. Don’t be fooled by the title though, this is a play about friendship and understanding, not rugby.

Renee Liang has written a lot about the Asian New Zealand experience and her work always hits a nerve. She doesn’t lecture, nor does she flinch from reminding us that as a country we can still have a ‘them and us’ mentality that stops us being truly multi-cultural.

In this play, she brings a young Malaysian-Chinese lad to New Zealand and puts him in a Timaru homestay with well meaning parents. It’s hard for Willy to fit in initially. Not only is he dealing with the isolation of being a stranger in a strange land and being torn between two cultures, but his dearly loved Grandmother is seriously ill.

The school bully, Mook, eventually comes to respect Willy and indeed they become best mates. They share a love of rugby and through hard work and determination get to within a whisker of being selected for the All Blacks.

Ben Teh (Willy) and Paul Fagamalo (Mook) work up a sweat playing a multitude of characters and they do it miraculously well. There are shades of Toa Fraser’s Bare here in the compelling storytelling and the gorgeous characters brought to life at breakneck speed under the direction of Edward Peni. Both actors have an unforced style of acting which makes them a pleasure to watch. The fact they are real life friends is reflected in their on stage chemistry.

The only criticism is that there is a bit too much packed in to this one act play. We spend so much time with the lads during their school years that the ending feels too rushed, we really need to get to know them better as adults to appreciate how their fractured friendship affected them both. 
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Winning charm from the light touch at Bats

Review by Laurie Atkinson [Reproduced with permission of Fairfax Media] 26th Sep 2011

The First Asian AB, the second of three plays involving rugby that are being presented at Bats during the World Cup, is a two-hander that is 10 minutes longer than a rugby game and has no half-time, though oranges are offered to the audience at the end.

Also, while rugby is mentioned, it’s not about rugby. It’s about immigration, assimilation, friendship, growing up, loneliness, adjusting to an alien culture, nationalism, attitudes to education, work, and life in general. All very serious sounding but in fact it’s written and performed with a lightness of touch, a winning charm and plenty of humour.

It’s about Willy Long, a homestay Asian student from Kuala Lumpur, who at the age of 13 finds himself in Timaru far from his mother and beloved grandmother. He makes friends with Mook Falesi, a lively Samoan boy who is almost as much an outsider in Timaru as Willy. 

As their friendship grows through secondary school and Willy has problems with his mother who is determined for him to succeed by going to medical school and becoming a doctor – Willy sees rugby as a way of becoming popular and respected. So guided by Mook on how to become a Kiwi and how to attract girls he works his way up through school games to the First XV and then to the provincial level and finally to the possibility of selection for the ABs.

Things don’t quite work out as neatly as the title of the play suggests and the play falters with too many themes and ideas jostling for attention and too many scenes (e.g. a fishing expedition, a school dance, a meal at Pizza Hut) that are comfortable but dispensable padding. 

The production is simple: a bare stage, two small white benches. The acting is broad, energetic, and fun. Benjamin Teh plays Willy and Paul Fagamalo plays Mook. They work together well, both playing dozens of other characters ranging from young girls to elderly men. Accompanying them on stage throughout the 90 minutes is Robbie Ellis who provides the excellent music and sound effects.

It’s a pity that the ref’s whistle wasn’t blown at full time – 80 minutes.   
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More is less

Review by John Smythe 23rd Sep 2011

As with Death By Cheerleader there is no doubting the talent of the performers. Ben Teh and Paul Fagamalo play a tireless 90 minute game of multiple characters supporting two lead roles with energy, wit and discretion, backed by likewise indefatigable live musician Robbie Ellis.

Of course the vehicle that allows them to perform with such flair is Renee Liang’s script and Edward Peni’s directing of it, whereby a story that traverses many years is condensed and played out on a stage that is bare except for two white benches.

The title is a bit misleading in that what the play really reveals is why we have yet to see an Asian-New Zealand All Black. We are asked to believe that Wei Lei – anglicised to Willy – Long could have made it in first class rugby. The rigour, focus and drive that would have got both him and his Samoan mate from school days, Michael – Mook – Falesi is not, however, convincingly represented.  

But the notion that a home-stay student of Chinese extraction could come from Malaysia to be schooled in Timaru from the age of 13, then move on to pre-med at Otago University, while learning then excelling at rugby, is just the device Laing uses to explore the experience of a 1.5 generation Kiwi (“those born in another country who have spent formative years in NZ” – which I would have though made them 0.5 generation Kiwis, if those born here are 1st generation; how can one be more than 1?).

The story she tells does spell out the experience. It starts with Willy’s arrival in Timaru at 13, in 1995. We follow him through Customs, into the bosom of his Kiwi host family (Mum, Dad, 8 year-old Sarah), into a classroom and the school playground (played more at primary than secondary age) where the mateship with Mook evolves. Punctuated with phone calls home to his Ma, Willy meets the whole Falesi family, sees his first rugby match, is taught by Mook to walk and talk like a Kiwi, develops an interest in girls, takes up rugby to attract them, reacts badly to a death in the family, goes fishing, acquires a girlfriend called George with whom he waltzes, pigs out at Pizza Hut, scores, passes exams, graduates (with Mook) from the Junior C team to the First 15, gets accepted into Pre-Med at Otago University, loses George (now a Black Stick) to hockey in Auckland, gets Mook to train with him, represents South Canterbury in the 2000 provincial champs gaining a reputation as “the Chinese Firework”, chooses rugby over Med School thus provoking a visit from his mother.

Spoiler alert 
Willy tries to get Mook to miss the game and meet his mother at the airport so he can play before the selectors but Mook doesn’t turn up, so Willy misses the game and Mook gets selected. This shatters the friendship and they don’t see each other until 10 years later, when Willy is an addiction counsellor and Mook is an alcoholic who has disgraced himself with the All Blacks and needs help. Both are married with children who could now becomes friends… [Ends]

The problem is it’s stuck in narrative, albeit acted out in the umpteen scenes indicated above, with the actors striving to capture the emotional truths of each moment in the few seconds allowed for each opportunity. Apart from the book-ending scene of an adult encounter between Willy and Mook (somewhat redolent of Niu Sila) ten years on (i.e. 2011), the story unfolds in linear fashion and whole scenes do little more than add “and then this happened” to the lengthy narrative, despite everyone’s best efforts to show rather than tell. Many characters and situations are established then forgotten; what seem like set ups never pay off so they don’t earn their keep.

There is a major clue to what the play wants to be when, in response to George transferring to Auckland, Willy decides he wants to be an All Black in order to show her and everyone in New Zealand that he is worth loving. Yes, the ingredients are there: exiled to a strange land by a hard-working mother ambitious for him; bullied for being different and having to use clever strategies to survive; separated from the loved and ailing Amah (grandmother) who brought him up … We observe that he is devastated at the (predictable) demise of Amah. But the ingredients do not produce the chemistry required for empathy.

The climax is supposed to come where the demands of the team and his personal ambition clash with his duty to his mother but given the way that sequence is dramatised, I simply do not believe it. The groundwork has not been laid for that action and its outcome to be credible.

I admire what Liang is aiming for and the commitment of her director and actors in giving life to her script. Maybe it’s just not possible with only two actors. Maybe it could work better with a heightened level of madcap comedy (Wheeler’s Luck springs to mind here). Penetrating social satire can be wacky with powerful moments of truth or dramatic with impactful comedy of insight.

Either way I can imagine how The First Asian AB might meet its objectives with a stronger distillation of the central theme that informs every scene, each of which simultaneously advances the plot, and develops the characters and their relationships, so that what they add up to is enriched by all that has gone before.

Currently it is fun to watch for its performance energy and inventiveness, but the welter of extraneous characters and situations detracts from our engagement with the central characters; with their wants and needs. Less could be more but as it stands, more is less. 
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John Smythe September 29th, 2011

That is a very good point, Michael, and it was remiss of me not to pick up on that myself.  If the play is being developed further I hope the question of eligibility will be embraced as a useful obstacle to the key quest for acceptance and as a catalyst in raising the issues of personal/cultural identity and integrity. 

Michael Wray September 29th, 2011

I can't help but wonder if someone living in NZ on a student visa is eligible to represent NZ. Assuming Malaysia had a rugby team, Willy Long would play against the All Blacks, surely, not for them?

Still, as has been observed by several reviewers, it's not a play about rugby. It's a play about immigration and the clash between desire and responsibility.

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Only a bit of rugby, but a lot of insights

Review by Paul Simei-Barton 15th Sep 2011

With a promising title, perfect timing and a killer concept, you might expect playwright Renee Liang to be a contender in Plays of the Week. But anyone who feels the national game hasn’t been getting enough attention lately will be disappointed to find that The First Asian AB is not really a play about rugby.

This is not to say the oval ball doesn’t get thrown around a bit. The show features hilariously mimed on-field action and some revealing forays into the changing rooms – but the game serves as a vehicle for a sensitive and wide-ranging meditation on the immigrant experience. [More
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Plenty of laughs and a whole lot of honesty

Review by Joanna Page 14th Sep 2011

I couldn’t care less about rugby (blasphemy, right?), so seeing a play based around our national sport is as close to the World Cup as I’ll get – and fortunately I didn’t need to know much about the game to enjoy it. 

The First Asian AB (FAAB) tells the story of Willie, a Malaysian secondary pupil who moves to Timaru to pursue his mother’s med-school dream for him. He meets Mook, a Samoan boy in his class, and the two become fast friends with a shared dream – to play rugby professionally. But, as is often the case, their dream requires sacrifice and comes at a cost. 

Between them, writer Renee Liang and director Edward Peni have created genuine, atypical-Kiwi characters who are deftly brought to life by Benjamin Teh (Willie) and Paul Fagamalo (Mook).

The actors’ roles are demanding. The two of them play everyone – parents, host parents, siblings, teachers, coaches, a girlfriend, and sports commentators – and they rely on their voices and physicality to tell their fast-paced, dialogue-driven story.

Simplicity is key. There are no costume changes and just two white benches on set, but the audience is taken to schools, shops and fields. Andrew Corrêa’s often-haunting music communicates emotion and highlights the characters’ different cultures beautifully. 

The First Asian AB offers plenty of laughs and a whole lot of honesty.  It’s in its development season and I’d be curious to see how it grows by the end of the run. There’s room for slight improvements; certain scenes that explain Willie’s change in priorities seemed redundant and could be cut without impacting on the story – Teh is capable of conveying that through his performance alone.

As far as I’m concerned, New Zealand can keep its opening ceremonies, transport woes and fireworks displays. The First Asian AB proves that rugby in this country is about heart. And it always will be.  
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