REVIEW: Scenes from a Yellow Peril (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Cynthia Lam

Photo: Andi Crown

Funneling Rage into Art

Written by award-winning Chinese Kiwi playwright and poet Nathan Joe and directed by Jane Yonge with dramaturgy by Ahi Karunaharan, Scenes from a Yellow Peril is a show about the everyday racism East Asian New Zealanders experience in Aotearoa. Part performance poetry, part political commentary, part story telling, part confessional, Scenes from a Yellow Peril confronts these uncomfortable topics through a knock-out performance. We are taken on this journey through a series of performance vignettes with titles ranging from ‘Love in a Time of Colonisation’ to ‘My Ancestors Crossed Oceans to Be Here and All I Have to Show for It is Bubble Tea’. 

The play begins with an introduction by the cast members on stage––Nathan Joe, Uhyoung Choi, Amanda Grace Leo, Louise Jiang, Angela Zhang; and musicians Kenji Iwamitsu-Holdaway, Rhohil Kishore and Daniel Mitsuru McKenzie––telling us a little bit about themselves. Their costumes, designed by Steven Junil Park, consist of layers of muted-coloured draped cloths and have both a timeless and culture-specific quality to them. The host on opening night, Jane Yonge, proceeds to have a Q&A session with the five cast members, which sets the confessional nature of the scenes to come.

A powerful group performance poem is delivered with rapid-fire precision, informing us ‘this is a play about rage…a war cry’. Joe’s mastery of language and rhythm is on full display, aided by the performers’ sharp delivery. The dynamic interplay between the performers themselves and the live band enhance the impact of the words and stories being told. 

One of the most provoking scenes in the show is ‘They Kill Chinamen, Don’t They?’, recounting the stories of Joe Kum Yung, Jae Hyeon Kim and Mei Fan, victims of racially motivated hate crimes in New Zealand. The macabre tone is conveyed in its delivery and enhanced through music, lighting and the set design (Rachel Marlow and Brad Gledhill). The vignette ‘You Often Masturbate’ provides a more light-hearted moment through satire. ‘Decolonise the Body. We are all Meatsacks’, includes commentary on notions of beauty and fetishization: ‘I have taped my eyelids, and folded them over. I have dyed my hair, over and over, the roots now poisoned…I have been made an object without wanting it, I have made myself an object when I felt unwanted’.

Somewhere towards the end of the show, it struck me how momentous this occasion is: a show that confronts racism and spins all its conflicting and messy feelings on its head. It is brave. It is bold. The performers, each with their own unique qualities and personalities, are relatable and personable. There was honesty and openness. They took centre-stage. And as a Chinese-New Zealander, I could relate. Joe ends the show by apologising, a series of ‘I’m sorry…’ statements (which is not untypical in Chinese culture). Joe says ‘I’m sorry for making a big deal about racism’, yet there is an important message embedded: ‘that anger can fuel you’, and I say YES to that.

Scenes from a Yellow Peril is co-produced by Auckland Theatre, SumsSquare&Co and Oriental Maidens and plays ASB Waterfront Theatre 22 June to 3 July 2022.

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