A white woman stands at a microphone. It’s a comedy act. She is wearing a drab tracksuit – writer’s garb. She launches into a character-swapping dialogue – replete with brash accent imitations – about someone trying to earn the favour of the old Vietnamese woman who owns her favourite restaurant. It’s strange – almost nostalgic, in a dark way – to see a white person imitating cartoonic Asian accents. We’re confused but we know it’s ok, because this is a show by Chi Vu and directed by Beng Oh, Asian-Australian theatre makers with a playful and commanding awareness of racial politics.
This scene turns out to be a show-within-a-show, the breakout work by Mai Nguyen, a Vietnamese-Australian playwright. Mai is played by Annie Lumsden, the white woman, and she is joined by her white boyfriend Kevin, played by Asian-Australian John Marc Desengano. The play tracks their relationship as it twists, turns and breaks down in funny and poignant ways, as Mai tries to ride the wave of success but crashes on the shore of her own racialised identity. The play explores the trappings of identity, and the way that independent or freelance workers are forced into branding themselves in limiting ways to find success. Chi Vu, speaking through Mai, expresses a desire to have the full complexity of her experience shared onstage, but explains that audiences and especially arts producers can only view her work through a reductive lens of racial difference and a discourse around diversity that really only just centres whiteness. The work sometimes feels like a lecture (albeit a personal and engaging one) on the racial politics of Australian theatre, and it seems that this hint of didacticism is a necessary evil for Chi Vu as a racialised playwright. White audience members (the majority, as the play notes) cannot simply view her work, they need to understand the context where it is coming from, and her experiences as a woman of colour are specific and important to share. The work also plays with the sense of alienation experienced by white audiences in response to these experiences. If we feel alienated in the theatre right now, we can only imagine how Chi Vu feels in theatres all the time. She reminds us that in colonial Australia, Asian immigrants were officially known as ‘coloured aliens’, and we are gifted a playful treatment of this image with Lumsden appearing later in the show in green martian face paint.
The race swap can’t help but remind us of Caryl Churchill or maybe Declan Greene, a post dramatic tradition of destabilising identity and the body, helping audiences to see the ‘other’ with fresh eyes. Moreover, there is also a dimension of self-reflexivity to the show that deserves mention, a certain self-deprecating author insertion that could maybe draw comparisons to Zoey Dawson’s work in a similar vein, such as Conviction (directed by Greene) from last year. Coloured Aliens seems to oscillate between the deeply indulgent hilarity of Dawson’s ‘writing about herself’ and a more sincere sense of injustice and faith in the capacity of theatre to address it. Chi Vu is reflexive and critical of the act of writing – Mai claims to be skeptical of words – but ultimately the show invests in the capacity of fiction to get the point across.
The show’s dramatic narrative centres around the relationship between Mai and Kevin as it becomes gradually twisted by a devolving racial discourse. They playfully tease each other’s ethnic backgrounds and stereotypes, ironically engaging racist tropes until a premature comfort with Mai’s identity (and undervaluation of the work of artists) leads security guard Kevin to submit a proposal in Mai’s name to a theatre company, jeopardising Mai’s career, their relationship and stealing her identity with the best of intentions.
The relationship narrative feels a little forced, and the interspersal of interesting yet questionably relevant political commentary, and the occasional tired trope of the tortured artist versus the unappreciative everyman, makes it feel like something a bit more straightforward (like a performative lecture) would be more interesting for Chi Vu and probably the audience. That said, there are moments of poignancy in their story that hit home: the complexity of emotional co-dependency, the way it shields Mai’s ability to see the problematic sexist and racist behaviour of Kevin, the bitterness of their breakup.
The direction is strong, as are the performances. Lumsden is fantastic to watch, holding the space easily. Desengano is thoroughly entertaining, his brilliant physical comedy buoying the show. Beng Oh keeps the story tight and the energy high, but scene transitions feel awkward (no doubt an opening night issue) and the collaboration with designers seemed a little fraught, especially in terms of the sometimes bizarre rhythms and incongruities of the lighting and sound design – it was hard to know what world we were in. Eugyeene Teh’s set design functionally works with abstraction: a raised yellow circle bounds most of the performance in the centre of the stage, the yellow Asian-ness both a platform and a cage. A lucky cat painted in Aussie yellow and green insistently beckons from above the stage.
Coloured Aliens is delightfully weird, and I am writing this with a sense of hyperawareness because the play repeatedly said to vague reviewers of Asian-Australian work: I see you. For what it’s worth, I had a lot of fun, I laughed loud, I liked the tone and valued the risks the work took. I was a little confused and exhausted by the end, not sure what to take away. At the same time, I perhaps looked a little too hard for political take-home messages and didn’t value the emotional complexity as much as I could have. Looking back I feel a bit silly for missing that, as the work repeatedly said, stop reducing things to the political, to identity, because my story is complex and complexity is valuable. Complex comedy is hard, as is complex or funny political work. Coloured Aliens is grinding hard against the grain and, all things considered, doing it pretty damn well.