What does it mean to be Chinese? A new play at Q Theatre is trying to answer that question.

Other (Chinese), by writer/director Alice Canton, is documentary theatre with interviews and live storytelling to create an unapologetically Chinese examination of race.
Canton (pictured) was inspired by thinking about what up to 100 voices, from an otherwise invisible or marginalised community, would sound and look like on stage.

It means the work doesn't use actors, instead taking people from the wider community, including a new mum and a women's refuge worker, and having them tell their stories in their own words.

"Something happens when we take these stories from these people and re-mouth them in the voices of actors," she says. "We're talking about radically trying to represent these identities and the most radical way is by having these identities represent themselves."

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Made as part of Q Theatre's Matchbox programme, Canton and producer, Julie Zhu, spent a year recruiting participants by talking with community and cultural groups as well as individuals.

"At the heart of the show is dispelling this myth of Chinese being a homogeneous singular entity," Canton says.

To achieve that, those featured include NZ-born Chinese and those born overseas who have migrated here, creating a range of perspectives. Canton herself was born in Greymouth to a Chinese mother and Welsh father. She has experienced racism and is often told to "go home", a phrase that can be deeply damaging when it comes to creating your identity.

"That sense of displacement is very strong and maybe even more so if you were born here because there is no other place to call home. To be born in New Zealand and still feel a sense of longing or difference is really acute. People carry this with them their entire lives."

She describes Other (Chinese) as a "reaction" to her solo work last year, White/Other, where she examined the same questions from her own perspective.

"It is a response based on listening to the desires of the audiences that came. Some of the choices that I have made in this work correlate almost directly to feedback I got."

It also examines what it means to try to fit into a majority white culture. Canton says theatre, in terms of audiences and creators, is typically white and middle class but while the stories on stage will likely be different to what audiences normally see, she hopes they don't feel confronted or lectured.

However, there is a political message to the work, a fitting coincidence given it premieres just weeks before the election. The shadow of events such as the Chinese surname controversy will be felt throughout the play.

"What we're indicating is when there is an insistent saturation that you are nothing or you're invisible or you are the enemy or you're worthless or that you don't matter, that has an effect on our collective psyche, but more importantly that does come into policy making, social consciousness, behaviourism, and cultural intelligence. Absolutely it is political, because this is ruining people's lives. 'Migrants', that word, is synonymous with Chinese."

With Other (Chinese), Canton hopes the Chinese community will start to take the conversation back into their own hands.

Lowdown
What: Other (Chinese)
Where and when: Loft at Q Theatre, Wednesday, September 6-16