This is part 1 of my Web Feature Portfolio for Writing and Editing for Digital Media. My articles are for ‘the Australian online magazine of culture and the popular arts’ The Enthusiast. My first article is a review for their ‘The Stage’ category.
Starring: Jing-Xuan Chan, Fanny Hanusin, Georgina Naidu, and Terry Yeboah
Directed by: Ming-Zhu Hii
Venue: The Storeroom at Parkview Hotel, Fitzroy
9/10 Stars (unfortunately, I don’t have The Enthusiast’s star images, nor their flair for sweding images)
To quote a song from Avenue Q: everyone’s a little bit racist. But Attract/Repel, which just finished a rather successful run at the Fringe Festival, confronts issues of racism without being flippant, and asks why we’re still being racist, without heavy-handededness. In fact, it stands as an honest, challenging and compelling piece of theatre.
But to call it theatre is almost wrong, at least in the traditional sense of theatre. It was more like we were eavesdropping on the casual conversations of four people getting to know each other. Rather than performing, they seemed to be discussing and we were silent witnesses and participants.
The actors take turns introducing themselves to one another, giving their names and backgrounds. They recount their memories; real stories, both humorous and horrible, surrounding their experiences with racism, how they perceive their racial identity and, all in all, candidly sharing their thoughts.
Accompanying their conversations: blackboards waiting on the walls and fluorescent tube lighting scattered around the stage. Both features play an integral part. The actors pull out chalk and mark their place on the ‘chink scale’ – do they blend into Asian stereotypes, Australian ones, or somewhere else on the spectrum? Georgina and Terry scrawl racist slurs across the walls and throw ironic racist jokes at one another, which soon becomes hurtful. Then the conversations continue, almost as if nothing has happened, but with uneasiness bubbling away underneath.
Soon, all of this gives way to several abstract and surreal interludes. The fluorescent lighting flickers out, and the actors roam the dark stage in anger, bashing against the walls. They hold fluorescent lamps and scrutinise one another’s bodies. Terry dances frantically. Jing-Xuan is excluded, trapped and crying in a prison of light while Fanny cackles at her. Towards the end, perhaps in some parody of ‘integration’ and ‘acting white’, Georgina puts on white gloves, Jing-Xuan squeezes into a white corset and Terry’s face is daubed with white makeup, bringing to mind the infamous Hey Hey blackface sketch.
All in all, Attract/Repel was structurally and stylistically unconventional, but utterly potent, with the perfect mix of hilarity, honesty, confrontation and worthwhile discomfort. The everyday met the abstract, with a lasting final effect of thoughtfulness, humility and appreciation.
In its production, casting and conversations, the play raises issues of diversity in theatre, particularly ethnic diversity. Director Ming-Zhu Hii wrote about this in both the Age, and on RealTime Arts and it’s recommended reading. Beyond that, go to The Melbourne Town Players’ website, check out some great photos from the show and read what other reviewers reckon. Attract/Repel was definitely among the best of this year’s Fringe Festival and it deservedly won the Kultour Tour Development Award at the awards night, so undoubtedly we’ll see more great stuff from this team soon.