If you go to the theatre, you are probably familiar with the two or three-act play. When the curtain rises or the lights come up, you see a set, you see props, and then actors come in and they talk to one another. It could be a drama, a comedy, or something in between. It’s familiar and satisfying.
Auckland Theatre Company’s latest work Scenes from a Yellow Peril throws that concept out of the window and delivers a unique blend of theatre, poetry, and music that is magical. It eschews the convention of dialogue between characters. Instead, while they do interact, they talk outwards towards the audience with song, and a form of spoken poetry that thankfully doesn’t rhyme.
As an example of the show’s uniqueness, the cast came on stage beforehand and answered questions from a host about their backgrounds and their non-theatre lives. This was a very engaging thing to witness, and also, I suspect, a way of connecting the audience to these actors who were about to take us on a journey that could, if not done properly, be quite threatening.
It also illustrated each of their complex but strong connections to Aotearoa New Zealand and either the lands and culture they were born into or whakapapa back to.
What followed was 80 non-stop minutes of compelling storytelling, split into 14 ‘scenes.’ Towards the back of the stage, three musicians provided the soundtrack. These accomplished people expertly crafted musical narratives that were the perfect accompaniment to each scene, and carefully orchestrated to enhance the dialogue but not overpower it.
Scenes from a Yellow Peril is special because it is direct and pulls no punches. The actors tell us stories about real issues – sex, stereotypes, violence, murder, awkwardness, identity, hypocrisy. It is sprinkled with ‘offensive’ language which is actually very funny but also deeply telling about the human condition.
The dialogue in some scenes is rapid-fire and intense with each performer speaking in quick succession. This is a talented ensemble who morf from character to character, from serious to slapstick, and from intense to thoughtful, seamlessly.
Perhaps the most solemn and heartbreaking moment concerns the real-life racially motivated murders of three Asian immigrants to New Zealand – Joe Kum Yung in 1905, Jae Hyeon Kim in 2003, and Mei Fan in 2013. Painful to watch, certainly, but so exquisitely staged that while underpinned by grief and anger, this scene became a touching memorial to their lives.
To underscore the messages in the play about racism and its insidious effects, the tables were turned on Pakeha culture in one scene. This clever piece of intense satire turned racist tropes back onto the dominant culture in this country in a way that was incredibly challenging, but also very funny. If you don’t ‘get’ what racism is and how it works, then this one scene alone will change that.
Peril was not only about intense themes, humour was sprinkled right through it, as was a sense of whimsy – in ‘Affirmations At the End of the World,’ actress Angela Zhang towered meters above the stage like a wise goddess, an oversized fan atop her head, and wearing a colossal dress with a glorious mass of fabric that cascaded like waves around her and out to the edges of the stage. She recited a series of both sage and satirical affirmations. It was a moment of bliss, dazzling and wondrous to see.
Scenes from a Yellow Peril is the kind of theatre we should embrace fully and immerse ourselves in. It is edgy, deliciously dangerous, outrageously funny, and exciting to watch.
Without giving too much away, the final scene involves a series of emotional and compelling apologies from the playwright that superbly encapsulate the issues at the heart of this play. It’s great theatre, and it’s thought-provoking.
But I thought, in one sense no apology was necessary, we need this work, and I thank you for sharing it with us.
SCENES FROM A YELLOW PERIL – 21 June – 3 July 2022
Auckland – Information and bookings
Listen to my interview with playwright Nathan Joe about the show: