Monday, 12 November 2012

The Trouble With Asian Men

The Trouble with Asian Men 
Created by Sudha Bhuchar, Kristine Landon-Smith and Louise Wallinger.
Produced by Tamasha
Parramasala, Australia Festival of South Asian Arts
Parramatta Town Hall, 7th November 2012

"What is the trouble with Asian men?" performer Amit Sharma asks the audience as he enters the stage. A deafening silence ensues. Despite the title of this performance from British company Tamasha being The Trouble With Asian Men, I doubt that any of us in the audience that night had quite anticipated that we might be cast in the role of focus group. The show's title did not include a question mark, after all. After a moment of quiet contemplation I decided that I don't personally have any particular 'troubles' with Asian men specifically, nor any particular expertise with which to approach the question. As an informant or focus group participant, I'd be pretty useless. Thankfully, after a while some other audience members began to chime in. Asian men were "too prominent" and "too conservative". Another audience member wanted clarification as to what Sharma meant by 'Asian men', noting that in Australia, the term 'Asian' is usually used to describe ‘oriental Asians’ rather than the British use of the term which seems to describe only subcontinental Asians – such as Indians, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans and Bangladeshis. It was a distinction that Sharma did not engage with, ending the preliminary thematic conversation at that point. Perhaps this question was one that the frame of the performance was either unable or uninterested in dealing with. Indeed the voices of southeast and north Asians seemed entirely absent from this work, despite the presence of several Australian interview subjects within the mix of the performance. Whilst the focus of the Parramasala Festival is on 'south Asian arts', this seeming blindness to the existence of specific and quite different local meanings of the term 'Asian' did this work no favours, getting the audience conversation immediately off on the wrong foot.

Sharma's introduction continued with a description of the technique used in the performance, that of audio recordings of interviews being delivered to the performers via headphones. The motivation for this is to facilitate a more faithful verbatim theatre, one that preserves every pause, stumble and idiosyncrasy of the vocal utterance, and bring the audience closer to the truth of the interview subject. This technique is very familiar to Sydney audiences, primarily through a trilogy of extraordinary headphone verbatim theatre projects from director Rosalyn Oades over the past seven years (Fast Cars and Tractor Engines, Stories of Love and Hate, and I'm Your Man). Interview-based verbatim theatre has had a lot of exposure in Australia over the past decade, and the more interesting Australian artists working in this area, including Oades, Tamara Saulwick, and the choreographer Kate Champion, have blended recorded interviews on diverse themes with striking stage imagery and strongly physical performances. For these artists, the recorded (and carefully edited) interview is only ever one channel of meaning within the stage aesthetic. The apparent absolute veracity of the recorded interview is placed into new physical contexts by its act of re-speaking within the theatrical frame. These artists have been very conscious that they are creating theatre, and deliberately use their interview source materials to ask questions about the limits of theatrical representation. They do this often by drawing attention to the disjunction between original voice of the interview and the body of the actor transmitting this to the audience. Faced with a mismatch between the 'voiceprint' and the age, gender and/or ethnicity of the actor, audiences in these works are given the opportunity to hear differently, and, perhaps paradoxically, through this change in perception audiences are often able connect more intimately with the stories contained within the performance.

The Trouble With Asian Men is primarily interested in direct reportage, and on its own terms it is very charming. The staging is very minimal, resembling a public reading or work-in-progress performance. Three actors – Tamasha performers Amit Sharma and Niall Ray with rotating guest local performers (on this night the guest was John Shrimpton) – sit onstage with their headphones and re-voice their interview subjects, accompanied only by a limited range of gestural actions. Compared to local examples of the genre, The Trouble with Asian Men is a pretty bare bones presentation. The three performers portray over a dozen different voices, each addressing the linked questions of what is the trouble with, and what's troubling Asian men. The answers are quietly entertaining, skipping lightly across cultural stereotypes, delving into questions of love, romance, and arranged marriages, family expectations, and the preservation of language whilst assimilating or being long-assimilated into a new home. Much of the humour of the work comes from relationship tales – from a lack of interest in dating fellow Asians, to tales of smothering mothers and awkward interactions with mothers-in-law. The close bond between mothers and their sons produces the show's most uncomfortable revelation, with one man making a Freudian slip by referring to his mother as his "wife" midway through describing his life being cared for by his mother after a marriage breakdown. There's a candour and freshness about all of these stories, and they do offer a window into the hopes and dreams of ordinary people in Britain and Australia. But ultimately, The Trouble With Asian Men offers few penetrating insights. It's a well-constructed, gently pleasant excursion, but it is neither especially memorable, theatrically innovative, nor socially transformative. For an audience unfamiliar with this theatrical technique, The Trouble With Asian Men is an accessible, mildly entertaining, and not overly challenging entry point, but the conversations it triggers will most likely be of short duration.

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