REVIEW: First World Problems (The Basement)

Review by Camilla Walker

[Energy and Heart]

In the curator’s own words, First World Problems is “a mischievous anthology of a show” – mischief abounds and anthology is the perfect structural description. Ahi Karunaharan has curated a project designed to explore and explode some of the contradictions, injustices, comedy, confusion and conflict belonging to South Asian experience in Aotearoa. With a cast of twenty in the Basement’s Studio space, whose voices we hear both collectively and individually, First World Problems is alive with a sheer human density that is inescapably watchable.

Producer Ankita Singh describes the work as ‘energising and innovative’, and she’s right – there’s a palpable vivacity conveyed through the cohesive energy of this large cast. She also comments that this kind of work is “essential to the development of culture and the creative industries of Aoteaora”. Structurally, the piece features individually focused monologues and dramatised confessionals from each character, which are linked together through contextualised ensemble movement. In amongst the show’s smorgasbord of the sort of everyday challenges that cultural collision presents South Asian kiwis – from dating to dealing with fatherhood for the first time – a more self-reflexive thread is woven: an articulation of the under-representation of such stories within New Zealand’s creative world.

First World Problems explores with great energy and heart the difficulties faced by predominantly young South Asian kiwis juggling at least two cultural inheritances, while addressing the battle South Asian voices face in getting artistic airtime in this country. Particularly affecting and memorable is Mustaq Missouri’s virtuoso ‘audition’ performance of some of Shakespeare’s iconic monologues – not to mention the twentieth century’s iconic pop hits – with each offering being rejected just as it reached its climax. His bravura display of talent speaks directly to the frustrations of colour casting and of the inequality South Asian actors face within theatre. This piece really crystallised the show’s compelling argument for the arts to move beyond ‘diversity’ and into ‘inclusion’, again to echo the curator’s note that “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance”.

Meanwhile, dance itself brings its own infectious energy – and comedy – to moments of the show. Raj Singh’s captivating monologue, which riffs on the refrain “My name is Raj, and I am not your Uber driver”, also playfully tells us “No, I don’t always dance when I hear [Bollywood music]…”, conceding “just sometimes”, as he cracks out some moves. This sense of humour pervades the show as a whole, with even some of the most difficult issues being brought to the stage with compassion and an ability to find moments of humour, even within troubling issues like gender inequality and cultural definitions of what it means to be a good woman.

First World Problems is an entertaining and enjoyable experience, with a strong focus on the forward movement of culture and definitions of cultural identity. The Basement’s description of the show as a compendium of ‘experimental’ works feels apt.  Some elements are a little rough around the edges – unison timing, for example, could have been a little tighter; at times, collective stage presence a little less tentative, and some moments abridged for greater dramatic impact. But, this doesn’t detract from the excitement of seeing fresh voices and stories on stage. Agaram Productions, in association with Prayas Theatre, is doing vital and invigorating work to shake up and challenge mainstream art. Writers Bala Murali Shingade and Shriya Bhagwat-Chitale, alongside directors Padma Akula, Rina Patel and Sananda Chatterjee, have taken a bold and rebellious step towards making theatre a more representative space in New Zealand.

First World Problems plays The Basement until 21 July.


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