Last year, Auckland Theatre Company drew attention for its production of Single Asian Female – a landmark show for diversity as it was the company's first with three Asian female leads, but it was a play not without its flaws. Enjoyable and well-staged, it ultimately fitted too neatly into the ATC's normal bread and butter. In my review, I wrote that I hope it would serve as the groundwork for more challenging work in years to come.
I didn't expect that to come so soon, but I doubt most of ATC's traditional audience would have expected a show quite as bold, entertaining or challenging as Scenes from a Yellow Peril. A co-production with SquareSums&Co and Oriental Maidens, the latest work from raising theatre star Nathan Joe is a firecracker of a production that rips up the rulebook and sets a new standard of how far an ATC work can go.
Told through 14 "Scenarios for the Assimilated Asian", Scenes defies genre or definition, combining every theatrical form you can think of - poetry, spoken word, karaoke, dance, music, monologue – in a punchy, 70-ish minute show with an undercurrent of rage and rebellion that permeates every scene.
This is a play that unapologetically explores the Asian experience in New Zealand, with stories touching on real-life murders 100 years ago to the ethics of watching porn and dealing with racist in-laws.
It is by far the most innovative, imaginative and provocative ATC show since their pandemic-reaction piece, 48 Nights on Hope Street – which was also directed by Jane Yonge and featured a piece from Joe. It's a sign of the change that has been ushered in by new creative director and chief executive Jonathan Bielski that these talented artists have been given such a big platform to play with and the freedom to tell a story that speaks to them, rather than trying to have their cake and eat it too with the traditional ATC audience.
The whole creative team excels here – Steven Junil Park's costumes are simple but stunning, Rachel Marlow and Brad Gledhill manage to make full use of the Waterfront Theatre's stage with incredibly little, and the three-piece band under Kenji Iwamitsu-Holdaway delivers a mesmerising score.
The cast are simply flawless. Joe is joined by Uhyoung Choi, Amanda Grace Leo, Louise Jiang and Angela Zhang, and each one is captivating in their own way, the different tones and styles of each scenario giving each cast member a moment to shine.
Leo in particular was a standout with her stunning vocals during "I Cannot Invite My Parents to My Play". Zhang gets a starring moment in Park's most stunning costume in "Affirmations at the End of the World", while Jiang before her does some of the most complexly choreographed dancing you'll ever see on stage in the live-music video "Decolonise the Body".
The only place where the play stumbles is when it removes the fourth wall and brings the production side to the forefront. The play opens with a Q&A aspect – on opening night conducted by Yonge – where the cast field impromptu questions, a nice moment at the start but it feels awkward when it returns later, and then doesn't have a seamless impact on the rest of the show.
That feeds through to the ending, where it seems – as it often does with anthology or non-narrative pieces like this – that Joe was unsure how to wrap it up. The final segment focuses solely on Joe, and is moving, honest and witty, but also runs the risk of over-personalising a play that had avoided being too directly about one individual's experience before then, and had had the universal scope to have a long life beyond this short-run.
It was only a mild gripe at the end of what is otherwise a flawless, seamlessly constructed production that grips you from the opening "Short History of Humiliations" that perfectly sets the tone.
Joe's writing is a welcome confrontation delivered in an entertaining package, and Yonge deserves awards for bringing it to life in such a creative, ever-evolving way. And hopefully this is the clearest sign yet that ATC is under new management, that they are prepared to push the envelope and challenge their audiences, and I cannot wait to see what comes down their pipeline next.
What: Scenes from a Yellow Peril
Where: ASB Waterfront Theatre, until Sunday July 3