Sometimes, the best place to have a conversation is on stage. Jane Yonge and Nathan Joe, two theatre-makers, bring discussions about grief, anger and cultural identity under the spotlight with their two latest performances - Slay the Dragon or Save the Dragon or Neither in Wellington and Scenes from a Yellow Peril in Auckland.
A young woman steps off a plane in China. She’s grieving – her Chinese mother has died and she’s travelled halfway around the world to find her roots in a journey film advertisers would call ‘heartwarming’.
But grief is complicated and can’t be solved by getting on a plane.
Jane Yonge knows because that was her nearly 10 years ago. Her mother had died – on Yonge’s birthday no less - and in an attempt to deal with her death, Yonge left New Zealand for China on a personal quest of sorts.
“I should note that both of my parents are from Fiji. My mum didn't speak Chinese. She'd never even been to China. But I was like, my mum was Chinese, I will go to China, and then I will have a cultural awakening, which will help me understand my grief,” she says with a wry grin.
What happened was the complete opposite.
Anxiety and grief, combined with a whopping dose of culture shock, led Yonge to spend her first few days holed up in a friend’s apartment, barely venturing outside. There was no lightbulb moment and her grief didn’t disappear after a TV-worthy series of poignant moments.
Instead, it was a bizarre time – Yonge trying to deal with a strange mashup of her confusion over her cultural identity and navigating grief, all in an unfamiliar place.
Her strange anti-climactic journey forms the core of Slay the Dragon or Save the Dragon or Neither, running at BATS Theatre in Wellington.
Working in collaboration with Chinese-Kiwi playwright Nathan Joe, the pair have layered personal stories with presentations, family trees and a brief history of China.
Originally, Joe thought he was signing on to the production as more of a helping hand for Yonge – his friend and creative collaborator - out.
But somehow - “seamlessly” - he became increasingly involved, to the point where he’s now up on stage with Yonge, sharing his own story of identity and grief – this one with more of a lens on the diaspora in New Zealand.
“It's 20 percent personal stuff about me, which I was like, ‘Oh no, I didn't expect to be sharing a lot of personal things’,” he says.
He says his and Yonge’s stories touch on grief as people who are disconnected from their culture and the notion of returning to the homeland and what you may or may not find there.
This isn’t the first time the creative duo have worked together or tackled the topics of identity and culture.
In mid-March, less than a week before Yonge and Joe were due in Wellington to open Slay the Dragon, they were in Auckland, hosting a script reading in the Civic during Level 2 for their show currently in development, Scenes from a Yellow Peril.
Much like Slay the Dragon, Scenes from a Yellow Peril, directed by Yonge and written by Joe, takes a good, long look at identity.
Scenes from a Yellow Peril examines contemporary identity politics and what it means to be a Chinese-New Zealander today through a series of distinct chapters - “more like a series of poems,” says Yonge.
Strong currents of emotions run through both pieces – grief in Slay the Dragon and anger in Scenes from a Yellow Peril.
“Scenes is about anger and identity politics or anger and culture,” Joe says, “We're trying to show you how much anger has been bubbling underneath the surface for so long.”
For Yonge, the phrase “war cry” often leaps to mind when talking about Scenes from a Yellow Peril.
The piece speaks to what it means to be a Chinese-New Zealander right now, but it also contains questions that go beyond that, Yonge says.
“What does it mean to live in New Zealand at this moment? What is - using air quotes - race relations? And how does that work because everything just feels so convoluted and so difficult?”
“Nathan and I, we've been talking about the awful hate crimes that have been happening to Asian-Americans recently and it's just like 'what is going on?'. The confusion of it is just so overwhelming.”
For now, they’re exploring these questions – as well as questions on grief and identity – through theatre. And as Slay the Dragon rolls across BATS Theatre’s The Dome, Yonge and Joe are also asking themselves what journey the audience will go on during the show.
The show itself is constantly evolving, adapting to what’s happening – even in the lead up to opening night, Joe was coming into rehearsals with fresh material and says each night may bring a new evolution of the performance.
"We're figuring out the questions as we go.”
Slay the Dragon Save the Dragon or Neither is on now until March 27 at BATS Theatre in Wellington. Tickets available here. Scenes from a Yellow Peril is currently in development, with plans to bring it to Auckland stages next year.
Banner image: Andi Crown Photography
- Asia Media Centre