REVIEW: Yang/Young/杨 (Auckland Theatre Company)

Review by Irene Corbett

Benny Joy Photography

[More than a Youth Show]

In 2019 I wrote a review which included a meme that intimated that the ATC youth shows excite me more as an audience member than much of what appears in the main programme. Now in 2021 ATC, with the support of Proudly Asian Theatre (PAT), offers Yang/Young/杨 as part of the Here and Now season which is not just more exciting but a revelation in comparison to much of the main programme. 

Sherry Zhang and Nuanzhi Zheng’s new play is funny, vital, heart-breaking, and hopeful. Directed by Nathan Joe, this is a coming-of-age story which stages the complex lives of teenagers, specifically that of Chinese-Kiwi teenagers, the children of migrants, exploring love and queerness, navigating family and culture, facing everyday racism and lifelong expectations. The script presents two young characters, Poppy and Qiu Ju (portrayed by Kate Stedman and Shelby Kua respectively), who attend the same high school but despite family connections move in different social circles. 

The audience, especially Asian Kiwi audience members, are offered universality in the very specificity of the script.  I witnessed laughter which produced tears, and in a series of transformative conversations which take place between the girls and their maternal figures- Poppy’s mother Mama (Flora Xie) Qiu Ju’s grandmother Ah Ma (Valery Chao) – I noticed a sudden stillness in the audience seated in front of me which indicated the kind of listening that takes the whole body, a listening that takes place with heart and mind. 

The script delves into some of the many difficult choices young people can be faced with whilst also focusing on the particular experiences of diaspora and the act of balancing two cultures. Big conflicts including the tension between expressions of queerness and family identity are candidly explored. 

Yang/Young/杨 does not suffer the loss of nuance often sustained in the overly performative and highly confessional style of delivery a large portion of Auckland’s young actors seem to have adopted. I am inclined to think back to the candour and clarity of Joe’s pieces How to Write a Love Poem in 2020 and Invisible Man which appeared in 48 Nights on Hope Street in ATC’s 2020 Back on the Boards season and attribute this particular strength to his direction. 

The characters are rich and refreshing, a testament to the quality of the script and the handling of the performers. Stedman and Kua as Poppy and Qiu Ju are well cast. Stedman as Poppy is as passionate and frustrated as she is cool and confident, smashing through the ‘popular girl’ she as appears in the promotional material. Kua as Qiu Ju balances Poppy, bringing equal measures of strength, charm, and anger to the stage and destroying the ‘shy girl’ she is deemed by her classmates early in the plot. At one point in the action Kua delivers a prolonged shout of anger. The shout is emotion performed and yet the delivery is not overwrought, a note is simply sounded and sustained, transformed into a symbolic clarion call rather than merely being a vocal cord destroying moment of angst. 

Poppy and Qiu Ju are then mirrored and supported by two maternal figures. Flora Xie is particularly wonderful as Mama, a mixture of frankness and warmth, and Valery Chao as Ah Ma provides a comforting presence to counter the high energies of the teenaged characters. 

The rest of the cast (Georgia Frost, Tasman Clark, Jake Tabata, Molly Last, Hamish Boyle, Ruby Payne, and Danny Lam) are all in their own ways excellent, whipping out somewhat one-dimensional and yet memorable characters to serve as the fabric of the world the four central female figures inhabit. Lam, listed in the programme as ‘ensemble’ deserves special mention, however, as he swaps between teenaged roles and older relatives delivering several comedic turns which are to be most enjoyed by audience members who speak Mandarin. 

Some of the colloquialisms used to demonstrate the youthfulness of the teenagersare perhaps more infantilising than these characters deserve but this sensation is soon washed away by the playful and intuitive direction. The spatial challenge of the Basement mainstage is made the most of through the use of rotatable flats on to which projections designed by Zheng (also AV Designer) are cast. These projected images allow seamless movement between locations situated within both the physical and digital worlds and stop the stage from ever feeling cramped. 

It is impossible to write about Yang/Young/杨 without thinking of Single Asian Female – the first of Proudly Asian Theatre’s collaborations with ATC and the first East Asian work to feature in ATC’s main programme. Opening on the 27th of April Single Asian Female represented a shift in the creative landscape of Aotearoa, a wave generated by a turning tide as Zhang put it in The Spinoff article reflecting upon the process of creating Yang/Young/杨. Several excellent discussions of the impact of Single Asian Female have been published and Renee Liang’s review for Theatreview and Sam Brooks’ piece for The Spinoff offer both documentation of audience responses to the production and address ATC’s long resistance to change and diversity. This is not to say that Yang/Young/杨 stands on the shoulders of Single Asian Female but to instead highlight that Yang/Young/杨 like Single Asian Female is encircled in the arms of PAT and the successes of both shows are owed to PAT’s efforts.

ATC should look to the success of Yang/Young/杨 and see the bright future of theatre in Aotearoa, see the talent of the creative team and the performers, see the joy and hunger of the audiences. This hunger, to watch your life unfold in front of you, to lock eyes with a performer whose face reflects your own, both demands change and remind us that it is not just a question of what stories are told but who gets to write and tell them. 

Yang/Young/杨 plays Basement Theatre 23-30 July, 2021. 

By Sherry Zhang and Nuanzhi Zheng.
Directed by Nathan Joe.
Cast: Kate Stedman, Shelby Kua, Flora Xie, Valery Chao, Georgia Frost, Tasman Clark, Jake Tabata, Molly Last, Hamish Boyle, Ruby Payne, Danny Lam. 

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