Brightest stars shine the light

By Dionne Christian

The Lantern Festival's first play dismantles tired prejudices about Asian-Kiwi culture

Lantern features James Roque and Chye-Ling Huang playing 10 characters.
Lantern features James Roque and Chye-Ling Huang playing 10 characters.

Since the first Lantern Festival in 2000, Chinese New Year celebrations have become one of Auckland's biggest culture events. Now it's expanding to include outdoor movies and theatre.

Eric Ngan, event producer for Auckland Tourism, Events and Economic Development (Ateed), wants to extend the festival to incorporate more of the contemporary Auckland-Asian experience, programming award-winning writer Renee Liang's debut play, Lantern. It is the first time there has been a full theatre production within the Auckland Lantern Festival, highlighting the growth of New Zealand-Asian playwriting and storytelling.

"If I had purposely commissioned a play for the festival, it couldn't have been more perfect than Lantern," he says.

"One of our aims in extending the Lantern Festival is to explore deeper into Asian-Kiwi culture, using the talents of our artists and writers. We want to create a festival that celebrates not only Asian culture but does so in a uniquely Kiwi way."

First staged in 2010, Lantern is described as equal parts comedy and family drama, fast-paced with an Asian flavour that illuminates aspects of family life for audiences regardless of race. Aptly, it is set in Auckland on the eve of Chinese New Year when cultural values can be thrown into sharp relief.

On the one hand, it's a time of family get-togethers and celebrations of harmony and love, but it's also when the house (and mind) is "cleaned out" - old scores are settled and slates wiped clean - ready to start the New Year.

For the Chen family, it's more uncertain than usual because one year ago, Rose, the family matriarch, left her husband, Henry, their on-line dating obsessed daughter, Jen, and no-hoper son, Ken. They're wondering if she will return and, if she does, whether family life will ever return to normal.

Liang wrote the play because she saw a lack of local theatre addressing contemporary Asian viewpoints. She has welcomed the chance to rewrite for performers James Roque and Chye-Ling Huang who have started their own theatre company, Pretty Asian Theatre (PAT).

Roque and Huang play all 10 characters in a story which now focuses more on the relationship between parents Rose and Henry. They asked Liang for more interaction between the characters, saying while it makes the quick-fire transitions more challenging, it adds an extra layer to the story.

Like Liang, Roque and Huang want PAT to stage plays which tell relevant, exciting New Zealand-Asian stories and offer more work opportunities to the growing number of Asian creatives.

"It's about providing a voice and we think Lantern will speak directly to many in our generation," says Roque, who made an impact in Indian Ink's Kiss the Fish and Fractious Tash's all-male production of Titus at Q Theatre.

Of Chinese descent, Huang featured in The Asphalt Kiss, The Dining Room and the sell-out season of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. She also co-devised and starred in Ben Anderson's Fringe show, Just Above the Clouds, and is collaborating on Liang's Paper Boats, which focuses on young Kiwi-Asian women. When she saw Lantern with her sister, she says it was like seeing their own lives on stage.

"It was a real highlight for me to see a story I could connect with. It was me on stage, with my family, so the chance to be able to perform it is amazing."

Liang says many of the scenes were inspired by her real-life experiences. She recalls being in the midst of writing Lantern when a door-knocking evangelist called. The woman immediately addressed Liang in Mandarin, which Liang doesn't speak; then asked to speak with her parents - Liang was 36 at the time - and promised to return when she had English-language pamphlets. She had them only in Chinese dialects as they were targeting "the Asians".

"It highlighted a lot of the assumptions people make about those of us of Asian descent and it made me really angry, but I've always found that taking that anger and using it to create something positive is a better way to deal with those sorts of feelings."

It's a sentiment Roque shares. Being of Filipino descent has meant he is constantly pigeonholed, often incorrectly. He's learned to deal with it and, like Liang, writes his worst experiences into his comedy routines. "Why get angry when you can have a good laugh?" says Roque, regarded as an upcoming stand-up comedian.

In 2011 he appeared on TV3's AotearoHA: Next Big Things and, in last year's NZ International Comedy Festival, he was nominated for Best Newcomer with his first solo show, James Roque is Chicken.

Lantern is directed by Eli Matthewson and Hamish Parkinson.


Performance

What: Lantern

Where and when: Musgrove Studio, Maidment Theatre, February 10-15

- NZ Herald

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