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October 2, 2011 | by  | in Arts Theatre |
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The First Asian AB

How should we define New Zealand culture? In her program notes to The First Asian AB, playwright Renee Liang points out “NZ is a nation of immigrants”.

The play takes a look at the New Zealand culture from the perspective of a fresh-of-the-boat Malaysian boy, a member of the 1.5 generation (someone who immigrates during their teens, and thus has elements of both cultures as part of their identity). So what makes a New Zealander? And is it anything more than a desire to be an All Black?

We begin by meeting two adults, an Asian doctor and a Samoan alcoholic rugby player, pretty stereotypical fare. Then we head back to 1995 and learn exactly how the two came to be where they are, at the same time typifying the New Zealand childhood of the 1990s. We meet our Asian doctor, Wei Lei (changed to Willy) aged 13. He’s been sent to New Zealand for his education and spends a good part of the play adjusting to the New Zealand way of life. He experiences our customs and our customs department, endures being treated like a zoo exhibit at school and has to get around what there is to eat. Luckily with a smattering of kung fu, the charming Willy learns to fit in pretty well.

Willy and Mook, his new best friend, get busy living the great kiwi childhood. They go to The Warehouse and get a bargain, eat milk bottles, go to Georgie Pie and get excited about Sky Television. This play champions the 1990s kiwi childhood and captures those things that our generation can really tangibly identify with. You know the ‘free hit’ rule? When you stand on those yellow fire hydrants and you get to hit someone? That’s in there. It’s awesome.

The play turns to the question of rugby. The championing of rugby is something I suppose I just have to get used to—it’s an important game (Indeed musing on rugby, Willy notes ‘it was a whole new world and I’d never seen men so in touch with their feelings”).

I was impressed at the collaborative nature of this piece. Playwright Renee Liang has acknowledged the help of many in her programme notes and it was no surprise to me to see Oscar Kightley credited as dramaturg. Kightley, a co-writer of Niu Sila, is a master at the two-hander format and the structure and comedy of Niu Sila have been reproduced here to great effect. The humour of jumping between multiple characters has become really very effective at expressing a New Zealand voice; Wheelers Luck springs to mind as another great example. Liang uses this form and her own brand of comedy to make jokes that don’t rely on bodily functions or awkward situations, a real relief to me.

The play is backed to the musical stylings of Robbie Ellis who is just plain great. The set uses simplicity as the key. The play’s climactic ultimatum (do I want to be a doctor or an All Black?) sees Willy deviate from his previous desire to do right by his grandmother, but the heart warming conclusion and epilogue are lovely. Ending on a message of hope and enduring friendship, The First Asian AB is a genuinely funny, heart warming piece of New Zealand theatre. So before we all graduate and move to overseas, go and see this play.

The First Asian AB
By Renee Liang
22 September – 1 October at BATS

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  1. Lawanda says:

    AKAIK you’ve got the aesnwr in one!

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