Reviewed by Malcolm Calder
Jess Hong, Uhyoung Choi, Dawn Cheong, Ariadne Baltazar, Jehangir Homavazir. Photo: Michael Smith
The First Prime Time Asian Sitcom
By Nahyeon Lee
In Good Company
Co-produced by Q Theatre and Silo Theatre
Q Theatre Loft
Until 27 November
By Malcolm Calder
5 November 2002
The second scene (or is it an Act?) of The First Prime Time Asian Sitcom sums it up. An earnest academic welcomes four panellists to discuss a new show recently screened on mainstream television and introduces them to her audience. The TV show is a frenetically paced sit-com that, according to a popular convention adhered to by many, might loosely be stereotyped as ‘Korean’ satire of Friends. But is it? And what is ‘Korean satire’ anyway? Who says so? How do stereotypes arise? What relevance does this have to mainstream New Zealand? Or to mainstream television?
Her panel guests (each a satire themselves) comprise a social networking influencer, a blogger, a highly opinionated academic, a theatre worker and the Showrunner who created the show. But the moderator quickly loses control as her panel leap immediately to a consideration of ‘Korean-ness’ and thence quickly to ‘Asian-ness’. How do national stereotypes accommodate multiplicity? Who exactly is an Asian? Are those from eastern Asia the determinant? What about Indians? How important is comedy? Are the children of Asian immigrants lost between cultures? And what about food? Her panel goes at it hammer and tongs, each expressing their viewpoints, no one listens to anyone else, egos are paramount and ‘winning’ discussion points becomes the goal of each. The point of course is that outcomes become submerged in mere noise – a further layer of satire.
Meanwhile, sitting right down the far end of the panel, is the actual writer of the TV show that gave this play finds its name. She is quiet, could quite possibly be a seriously good thinker and is clearly unsettled by all the non-productive noise. But we never find out because, although clearly having thoughts to contribute and using body language alone, she is out gunned by those around her and is literally left with her mouth flapping and nary a word is heard. Yet another satirical statement.
The First Prime Time Asian Sitcom lays satire upon satire upon satire. Its context is about any minorities that are visually, aurally and culturally different. How they fit in and how they discover their place in the habitable world. And, more importantly, about how they become heard, accepted by and a part of that world.
It is a truism of course that the habitable world eventually does so and that comedy has played a not insignificant role in the process. Worldwide over many generations, for example, acceptance of the Irish diaspora as something more than drunken singers, or that rock and roll is a valid musical form or that granting teenagers a voice all do so too.
The First Prime Time Asian Sitcom is bitingly comedic in places, uncomfortably so in some, while wrapping itself in its own satirical constancy.
Is it good theatre? While cleverly introduced and a designers delight, the first scene that establishes the TV show could possibly cope with some trimming while the strength of the second is noted above. However the third scene seems far too long, particularly the ending, and it might even benefit from a different treatment entirely.
Ahi Karunaharn’s direction implicitly acknowledges the self-consciousness and implicit anger underlying this work while maintaining its frenetic pace at all times, and his well-credentialled cast of Ariadne Baltazar, Dawn Cheong, Uhyoung Choi, Jehangir Homavazir and Jess Hong provide glowing evidence of a rising generation of new actors.
On balance, The First Prime Time Asian Sitcom is both important and welcome. It is likely to appeal primarily to its own cohort – educated, articulate, second-generation New Zealanders who have something to say and who are doing something about it. But it deserves a broader audience too. Not only because it plays with an idea that has rarely if ever received much airtime in New Zealand, but because it shows the work of an important young playwright in Nahyeon Lee and, as such, is a welcome addition to our national play-book.
Q Theatre and Loft Theatre are to be congratulated on co-producing this work.