Arguing about whether film-maker Taika Waititi is right to say New Zealand is as "racist as f***" misses the point, says writer/actor Waylon Edwards whose musical comedy about race is at the Basement Theatre this week.
WEiRdO — from the challenge (WERO) to find your identity (id) — doesn't take sides in any debate, says Edwards who wants the production to encourage more discussion about race.
"It's saying there's an uncomfortableness around the issue; we need to keep looking at it and talking about it. If we make it into a debate about the personalities involved, we're no longer looking at the point being made."
Given Edwards plays a character called Waylon, WEiRdO is possibly slightly semi-autobiographical. Here, he works alongside Richard (William Duignan) at the Department of Lifestyle Encouragement (D.O.L.E) where both are jostling for a promotion.
As the competition intensifies, wider questions about who we are, where we come from and what it means to be a New Zealanders are raised, especially when Richard suspects Waylon's Maori heritage may be more important than ability.
"It's about looking at how these conversations go down in a workplace and the way they are awkward rather than accusing Richard of being racist," says Edwards, adding that Waylon is also struggling with his identity and place.
Created by Duignan, Edwards and director Jane Yonge, he's reluctant to be drawn on specific incidents where he might have encountered racism but shares one anecdote from his musical theatre background.
"I once got the role of Danny Zuko in the musical Grease, but then some people started saying that I got it because I had brown skin which meant I could pass for an Italian like Danny. It was awkward because you're left guessing as to what the reason was and questioning your own abilities."
Why make WEiRdO a comedy musical? Like many others, Edwards believes comedy detonates the awkwardness about confronting difficult subjects and it may widen the conversation by attracting audiences who would shy away from a serious drama.
It's no surprise to hear he's a far of The Office, the UK mockumentary about employees at a company where conflicts about who used whose stapler say more about human despair and frustration than many a serious drama.
When it came to writing his first show, the office setting seemed a natural one for Edwards who makes theatre by night and works as a public servant by day. But he's also a fan of Flight of the Conchords so comedy with a musical influence was always going to play a part.
Director Yonge says the three of them are Maori-Welsh, Pakeha and Chinese-Pakeha, so bring different experiences of race and identity to the work.
"If as New Zealanders in 2018, we can laugh together and make music together while we interrogate our identities, that's got to be a good thing," she says.
Where & when: Basement Theatre, April 17 — 21