A kōrero with the director, playwright, and cast of Scenes from a Yellow Peril
Asian representation in the arts has, until more recent years, been lurking quietly in the background. The few tales Asian creators have been able to tell are well-worn: down-trodden migrants in varying labour professions (the miners and the farmers), racist stereotypes, and poll-taxes.
Without discrediting the pioneering efforts of such Asian productions that have forced open the door for plays to explore more nuances in the Asian identity, ‘Asian theatre’ has traditionally relied on its tragic and educational elements for legitimacy. It’s heartening to see Asian theatre-makers who used to avoid touching on their Asian identity in fear of being “pigeonholed” finally embrace and subvert it. Scenes from a Yellow Peril, produced by Auckland Theatre Company in collaboration with SquareSums&Co and Oriental Maidens, feels special because so few productions can articulate, let alone play around with, our current state of race identity politics. Much has changed for Asian theatre and its creators.
For director and UoA alumna Jane Yonge, her journey from doing performing arts at UoA to directing professional theatre productions has drawn inspiration from many sources. “[I] wanted audiences to experience these big feelings that I had,” Jane says. “I want audiences to feel something; I want to go to theatre and shows and really have the impact of live experience.”
What has been weighing on Jane more recently is the model minority myth, which is the idea that Asian people are supposedly the ‘model’ standard for minority groups: obedient, keeping to themselves, and silent against the dominant population. Yellow Peril sought to dissect these questions. “How do we perpetuate these things over and over again, and how do we break them? And then, who do we wanna be at the end of it all?” And, perhaps because of this myth, so many theatremakers have avoided telling more disruptive Asian stories until more recently. Jane explained that she got into drama as a shy kid because her parents “thought it would be a good way to fix that… while also kind of trying to push me to be a model minority, and be quiet and not be too loud.” This contradiction between what Jane describes as the “Western mode of what an extroverted kind of performing artist looks like” and the model minority myth is “quite significantly different.” And through the process of Yellow Peril, she’s been “enjoying unpacking” this contrast.
To create a piece so provocative, unconventional, and unapologetically angry held together by disordered order is more than rebellion; it’s revolution—the model minority myth turned on its head. Crucially, for Jane, unapologetically putting forward these stereotype-breaking ideas meant committing “to everything you’re doing 100%,” which means “[people] can’t question it”. Creating a space to deconstruct and question identity allowed the play to go beyond the expectations and restrictions of standard theatre and the stereotypes of Asian theatre as being serious, heavy artworks. The response to the scene ‘You Often Masturbate’ baffled Jane. “It’s a really well-written piece, but it’s not designed to be [Nathan’s] opus. He’s writing stuff that’s not traditional model minority content, and yet the response by the more ‘white royalty’ in theatre is like, this is incredible work”. Audiences don’t expect rage and absurdity from the model minority. “People don’t know how to read it. They’re like, is it art? Are we taking this seriously, or are we just trolling? Does it matter?”
Nathan Joe, Yellow Peril’s playwright and performer, expresses that the show is “an opening up that connects me to the audience in a way that is a profound gift.” Performer Angela Zhang shares a similar sentiment, saying, “What’s surprised me the most is how much people from other minority groups have related to the show. It’s a reminder of how much is shared between marginalised groups—the rage, the grief, the joy.”
As Uhyoung Choi, another performer, says, “There is something about sharing these experiences that help you unpack and unburden yourself of some of the struggles that have been weighing you down, whether consciously or subconsciously.” And this is very much the current state of Asian theatre in Aotearoa. Theatre makers are adding into these well-worn Asian immigrant tales the nuances of the very personal experiences of individuals at varying levels of the diaspora to explore their own identities. For Jane, “as an Asian practitioner, I want to make work about my heritage, because it’s such a huge part of who I am and how I experience the world. And so how can I tell other stories If I can’t interrogate this alongside [it]? Because each piece of work we make is an interrogation of what it means to be human, what it means to exist in the world, and how we live together or not.” Most importantly, over time, Jane came to terms with the fact that “if I’m Asian, then I’m making something that’s Asian theatre”, and that’s not bad nor something to avoid.
During the making of Yellow Peril, Jane explained that they “needed to make sure that everybody was willing to go that distance, not just in terms of performativity, but actually, are you willing to be open in these conversations about identity personally… because we can’t make comments about everybody, it has to be quite specific to each person.” She believes that the important questions that need to be asked to tell an authentic story about diaspora are “What are our own questions about our own identities? What does it really mean to be diaspora? …What is your intention with the work? What do you want to communicate to your audience?” We should consider the “degrees of language loss or cultural loss or potential future cultural loss for our children,” and that “there are multiple communities, and they’re not monoliths.” But Jane emphasises that you also need to find a way to take these experiences “out beyond your community”, which can be difficult because “we haven’t really been allowed to tell those stories before, or there hasn’t been space that’s been made for us to tell those stories to our communities.” To finally see these stories be told on stage is, as Uhyoung puts it, “therapeutic and cathartic”.
Nathan and Jane both recognised the need to interrogate racism and how we discuss it, including one’s place in the conversation, early on in crafting Yellow Peril. They were grappling with questions of race and privilege against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement. Questions around what it means to be tauiwi and to be racist towards East Asians, whilst being hyper-aware of being tauiwi and non-indigenous and our comparative privilege in Western society, were important subjects for Yellow Peril to raise. However, despite taking the form of an apology, ‘Afterword’ was not intended to take back any of the messages that the rest of the show had emphasised. Jane tells us that ‘Afterword’ wants the audience to interrogate our assumptions; “The show has more questions than answers, so don’t be seduced by the answers you might hear in the work.” Most importantly, it’s a call to keep trying. Identity politics is such a finicky, touchy subject that it can be easier to shut down any constructive conversation. “[‘Afterword’] is meant to lead us out with the idea that we’ll keep asking ourselves how we can keep trying and what we’re striving for. What does it actually mean to confront my own racism no matter who I am, in my own relationship to my family, to myself?”
An Extended Conversation with the Cast
Editor’s Note: This conversation was held before the play’s season from 28 June–3 July.
The structure of the show seems slightly unconventional. What has it been like to play with format and structure? Has it been fun to try something different and having it showcased on the big Waterfront stage?
Nathan Joe: Definitely. I didn’t think in a million years we’d get to do this on the Waterfront as a fully realised production. I think the structure allows people to receive the content (that of the East Asian experience in Aotearoa) in a very direct way that is simultaneously inviting and challenging if they are up for it. It’s almost like a simulation ride of what goes on in my head that you get strapped into. It also moves from scenario to scenario with enough frequency that if you get bored of one thing there’s always something else just around the corner.
Uhyoung Choi: The show is structured more like a concert/opera than a conventional play, and it has amazing seeing it all come together under the vision of Jane Yonge (Director).
I cannot wait for this to hit the waterfront stage. It is new, unique, and different in so many ways to the shows that have been performed on the Waterfront stage so far.
Angela Zhang: I don’t come from an acting background and I’ve never worked on a ‘traditional’ show before, but I think the biggest difference is that instead of interrogating what it means to play a character, we are figuring out how we can present words in a way that feels authentic, both to us and to the intention of the text. And also finding ways to make the text resonate and sing.
Imagine you’ve been picked by your English teacher to read a passage from your favourite book, but it’s been an especially tedious lesson and all your classmates are bored out of their minds. How do you speak in a way that convinces people to pay attention and to care for the text as much as you do? What makes a text come alive?
We’re both third-culture kids and we think telling these stories about our experiences and seeing POC represented on stage are so important. What has the process been like to tell a variety of stories that are simultaneously intimate to your own experiences but also the shared experience of diaspora?
Nathan Joe: It’s an opening up that connects me to the audience in a way that is a profound gift I think. To be give is a privilege. But to be received is an even greater one. Genuine connection and intimacy is so important. But it’s also very scary and humbling!
Uhyoung Choi: I think therapeutic and cathartic are the two words that comes to mind. There is something about sharing these experiences that helps you unpack and unburden yourself of some of the struggles that have been weighing you down, whether consciously or subconsciously.
And despite their specificity, I feel that many will be able to relate to, understand, and, hopefully, sympathise with the struggles many people in New Zealand’s diaspora have experienced.
Angela Zhang: Throughout the rehearsal process, we’ve had the opportunity to perform the show in front of a range of different people. The response so far has been really humbling. What’s surprised me the most is how much people from other minority groups have related to the show. It’s a reminder of how much is shared between marginalised groups—the rage, the grief, the joy.
How do you think these stories will translate to a general audience?
Nathan Joe: I think people who don’t directly relate will still see shades of their experiences here. I think it will teach them—or remind them—how to listen with an open heart. That we’re all struggling with questions of belonging. Even those who feel very comfortable in their security of citizenship will hopefully question or reflect on that privilege.
Uhyoung Choi: I think the feeling of ‘otherness’ is a universal experience that everyone will be able to relate to. The show is very vulnerable and human, and I think people will be surprised with what they take away.
Angela Zhang: The show is such a spectacle—it’s so grand that you can’t help but be drawn into the scale of it all. I think everyone will come away from it with something, whether that be the feeling of being deeply seen or just the experience of one heck of a ride.
Using humour to navigate tricky situations is something lots of POC kids relate to. At the same time, humour has been used to further perpetuate racism. How does humour fit into this show? Is humour used in the show to make the audience feel a particular way? (E.g., to create discomfort?)
Nathan Joe: I think that’s a really good question. It’s easy to make a mockery of yourself for a cheap laugh. It’s easy to make an exhibition of your pain and culture for the pleasure of an audience. It was very important that the audience was never laughing at us. I think the humour is there so we can laugh at the fact these things, these realities, are even a thing. Humour through satire and irony. And honesty. Because sometimes things are funny because they’re true. Or how we really feel.
Uhyoung Choi: Humour is used in a very fun, yet calculated, way in the show. It is used to subvert, ridicule, inform, engage, but most importantly, to warmly invite the audience into topics that may be too uncomfortable or difficult without it.
Angela Zhang: While performing to a large group of Pākehā, one of them asked whether they were allowed to laugh. Yes, of course you can laugh! The show is meant to be funny, camp and ridiculous. Racism is so absurd! What else can we do but laugh in the face of it all? I think laughter is humanising. I think shared joy can bring us together.