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Review: The First Prime Time Asian Sitcom is part rage, part satire

The First Prime Time Asian Sitcom is a new play by Nahyeon Lee and is accurately billed as a genre-messing black comedy.  

Given its title, you’d expect it to be funny, and indeed the first act of the play is run as though the audience is in a ‘live’ studio watching the taping of the pilot episode of a sitcom airing on a major New Zealand television network. 

The stage has three main ‘set’ areas – a karaoke nightclub, a TV writing room, and in the middle, a typical lounge room in a house. Immediately in front of the audience sits the show runner for the TV show, on the desk in front is a control panel and two monitors which also show the action from the sets.

The ‘show’ beings and we witness somewhat typical sitcom situations. The cast is funny, their are misunderstandings, romantic intrigues, and even canned laughter. There are scene changes and a story unfolds of four very different Asian twenty-somethings trying to make their way in the world. 

It’s a very clever premise that is lots of fun. The actors are upbeat and energetic, and the humour, while not top class, is typical for the genre. Also typical, are many of the stereotypes such as the desire for success, the little rich girl with overbearing parents.

The show ends on a high note, and the cast leave the stage. 

The second act is quite different. This time the actors take on mostly different characters and appear in a panel discussion which is all about the representation of Asian people and culture on New Zealand Television. Gone is the light hearted humour of the first act. This one is raw, and challenging. There’s mansplaining, defensiveness, but also a vitriolic attack on the sitcom by one person who believes the show is deeply racist and is deliberately designed portray Asian people in a certain way for a white audience.

The final act is focussed around the sitcoms writing room. The creatives discussing racism and the challenge of ‘fitting in’ as opposed to creating real stories that tell the truth about Asian people in New Zealand. This scene leads to one of the most breathtakingly dramatic moments I have scene in theatre and a spectacular melt down by someone caught between the two different competing entities – the network, and the crew.  

The central question of Prime Time seems to be, how do you create something culturally authentic when the gate-keepers and most of the intended audience are not from your culture?

This is a very cleverly constructed well-acted drama that takes the audience on a journey beginning with a seemingly innocuous ‘show within a show’, through to the very real frustration and anger that comes from being forced to portray oneself in a certain way to please a dominant culture.  

Part rage, part satire, Prime Time is incredibly thought provoking. Yet, while it explores the impact of casual and overt racism, it also illustrates something that transcends any particular culture or nation. 

This play reminds us of the mind-numbing banality of commercial television and in particular, situation comedies, which almost always, reduce issues and people to stereotypes to get a laugh. The irony is, if the sitcom from the first act was shown on TV, I might be tempted to watch it.

As The First Prime Time Asian Sitcom so rightly shows, that is something to both laugh and cry about. 

The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom plays 
Q Theatre – Loft
Thurs 3 Nov – Sun 27 Nov 2022
Tues – Weds: 7pm, Thurs – Sat: 8pm, Sun: 5pm


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