Directors William Yang and Annette Shun Wah have sought to and have succeeded in reminding us how elemental great theatre can be, and how easily it can connect, hearts and minds, even when they are seemingly split asunder, by what sometimes appear to be impassable cultural divides.
Stories East & West consists of six discrete stories from the lives of people living them, and grew out of storytelling workshops conducted by Yang, for Performance 4a, a couple of years back. The format’s nothing new to Yang, who’s been performing monologues, with image projection & music, since 1989. The character of his monologues is reflected in these, the histories and herstories of others: autobiographical tales, tragic and comic, in the way life double-deals this dialectic. We hear firsthand accounts of cruelty, questionable cultural practices, growing up gay, intra-racial prejudice, self-harm and much, much more.
Collectively, it reaches nether, hidden corners of the psyche and soul other theatre rarely, if ever, touches. It is deeply moving, deeply personal, brave and binding, in the sense that both despite and because of the differences between people the stories shine a spotlight upon, there is a universality, a lifeline, an umbilical cord that ties us tightly together. How powerful it is to be reminded of this. It dispels all cynicism, restores faith in and hope for humanity. If that isn’t a theatrical achievement, I don’t know what it is. Of course, it’s more than a theatrical achievement. It’s a humanitarian one.
Composer Nicholas Ng has introduced each vignette with a diversity of musical colours that distinguish each presenter.
Daphne Lowe Kelley defies stereotypes and expectations. As she says herself: “a Chinese woman with an Irish name?!” Uh-uh. A Chinese woman with a broad Aussie accent, married to a husband of Hungarian-German parentage. With an Irish name, apparently. Of course, like Daphne, we all defy expectations; each one as much melting-pot as the whole society in which we live. Others try to define us, to pigeonhole us, just as surely as we do same, for ourselves; celebrating different parts, at different times. Like her fellow presenters (bar one, captured on video), she walks, in dignified, unceremonious fashion, into the spotlight, standing in front of a huge screen of snapshots to which she can, of course, relate, but which we can, too. We’re allowed in, invited in, welcomed to her world, her perspective. She wears her heart on her sleeve. We wear her shoes, for a little while, feeling both the warmth and reassurance they provide, as well as when they pinch. Even when she struggles, here and there, to recall her own narrative, she maintains composure. The confessional honesty, courage and sincerity are utterly disarming. And her father’s story of pilgrimage to New Zealand reminds us of a much broader one: covert Australasian racism, exemplified in the hefty Kiwi poll tax, specifically designed to deter Chinese migration after it had outlived its economic usefulness.
We follow Joy Hopwood’s real-life dream sequence: her emergence from caterpillar to butterfly, as she slogs away at an abhorrent, deadend telesales job, while using her initiative to talk her way into auditions as a Play Scool presenter, a springboard for a diverse career as a television and stage actor, author and ambassador, for Mission Australia. We share her pain; admire her persistence; are awed by her endurance.
Paul Cordeiro is an out-and-proud performer and choreographer, of Portuguese, Malaysian-Chinese and Malay extraction. His success in musicals, with Opera Australia and Sydney Olympics opening ceremonies seems dramatically out-of-step with his humble quest for racial identity. Like his cohorts, he is quietly, simply eloquent in patiently describing his journey; bearing us on his back for a swim upstream, to discover his roots and his self.
Mary Tang was not wanted. Steeped in the chauvanism of Confucius’ Three Obediences, her life has been one of defiance and emergence, as an award-winning poet. There is the risk of contagion in her sorrowful tears and shared intimacies, even though her presentation is one step removed, on video.
Mai Nguyen-Long gets up-close and personal, even confiding her ongoing propensity for self-harm. A prize-winning visual artist, her works are challenging, if not downright confronting, which has caused her to rub up hard against the political correctness of her own community, in itself a challenge to friendships made, alliances forged and camaraderie earned with artists in Vietnam.
Like Cordeiro, Teik-Kim Pok exploits his very considerable presence, charm, charisma and rich vocal characteristics, to render his story of a more easygoing, comical approach to testing racially-based assumptions and perceptions by, for example, setting-up, bogusly, as a masseur in the street. “When a Westerner sees an Asian in a white coat, they tend to assume he or she has skills in one or other of the healing arts. So far, no one has questioned my qualifications.”
I can’t imagine a work of greater elegance, poignancy, simplicity, humility or dignity. I really, really can’t. I’m in awe of Shun Wah, Yang, and all the contributors. I feel close to them. Almost like I’ve known them all my life. Or do now. If theatre can do that, it can do just about anything. Inspirational. I hope it becomes a phenomenon.
Curtain Call rating: A
The details: Stories East & West played two performances at Riverside Theatre in Parramatta last week.