After a wildly successful run at Auckland Fringe this year, and awards to show for it, I am Rachel Chu has returned to the Basement Theatre to give us another hit of cultural commentary and raucous hilarity.
As the title suggests, this show was prompted by the film Crazy Rich Asians, but is so, so much more than a straightforward response piece. I am Rachel Chu is a masterpiece — equal parts media critique, cultural healing, tension and vulnerability, explored through both familiar and innovative storytelling techniques.
The sold out opening night seems to have a mixed audience — millennials and boomers, Pākehā and Asian alike — more so than I remember seeing during the Fringe season. The cast is the same stellar line up that graced the stage in February (Ravikanth Gurunathan, Amanda Grace Leo, and Angela Zhang) and Nathan Joe, the writer, is still the narrator and facilitator of proceedings.
As we walk in, Joe is dancing blithely across the stage in scrubs. I unashamedly make a beeline for the front row. “Can I sit here?” I ask. “Yes! The doctor will be with you shortly,” he replies, with a characteristic gleam in his eye.
The first obvious change I notice from last time is the set, designed by Bhavesh Bhuthadia — gone are the larger than life frames which rooted the cast in place. Instead, the minimalist operating theatre aesthetic features three rostra that the actors can move around. Joe’s hope is that it changes “how audiences engage with the spirit of the production, and how it works.” Certainly, this time around it’s much more focussed — with the de-cluttering of the set, the content shines through and you’re drawn to what the actors are doing with their faces, bodies, voices. Gurunathan has a particularly raw fury, Zhang an endearing earnestness, and Leo’s ability to be sensual while talking about school lunches is unparalleled.
Part of the focus this time around also comes from the fact that the cast has had more time to process. “The actors have been exploring their relationships with the text a bit more, and their own trauma and experiences of being Asian, so that will come through in their delivery,” Joe says.
Having a fresh approach was important to Joe and the cast. “Rather than creating text in response to text, why not create a game which you could improvise [with] elements of your true stories? There’s something to be said of the way we treat the discomfort of racial trauma. The games are a nice vehicle to explore these things in a safe way, in a way that you could laugh at.”
Sometimes it was harder to laugh. Times like when the cast shares their ‘firsts’: the first time someone was made fun of for eating ‘ethnic’ food or told off for speaking in their mother tongue, “which we don’t do in New Zealand”. I heard more than one person murmur at the latter, perhaps in solidarity or from reliving a shared experience.
The show goes from the sublime to the ridiculous, with an entire scene dedicated to the 80s makeover montage trope and a game involving Leo being fed crackers until she can’t speak, chew or swallow while Joe reels off a list of food (“Malay rojak salad with a side of never being able to emotionally commit to someone”). It’s packed with laughs and brings the audience into the fray on a few occasions, particularly the wedding scene — complete with crowdsourced characters, a ring-bearer, rose petal-throwers, and bubble-blowers.
Of course, all good things must come to an end, and this show does so with a thoughtful critique of our socio-political state of affairs and how media feeds into our cultural consciousness. Joe and the cast have mastered the fine balance between comedy and harsh reality in the themes explored throughout the show.
“This is a mash-up, parody, satire… but hopefully the sum of its parts has a thought-provoking element to it,” Joe muses. “We may not always come away from a theatre show intellectually engaged, but we may come away with a feeling that it was what we were longing for.”