18 February 2017
Currently on tour, Taking Flight is a selection of three plays, chosen as the winners of a competition that aimed to produce pieces by first-time playwrights from within the British East Asian, South Asian, and Southeast Asian communities. Obviously, the politics of the aim can’t be ignored: that there is something particular about British-Asian (or at least three geographically Asian areas of) identity and perspective that is being ignored in mainstream UK theatre; while writers from this background don’t have to discuss their identity in everything they do (it would be essentialism to claim otherwise), there’s no denying the possibility for new stories to be told that aren’t formed from common theatrical subjects. What is that ‘something particular’, then? In most cases, it’ll centre on the tension between competing identities; i.e. pluralism, which is a big political issue now given the populist position of British racists claiming it’s a myth—their belief being identity is unchanging. These productions in different ways give the lie to that notion, but interestingly, as they have only half an hour to impress and have to draw on history for their conflict, each playwright has chosen to set their plays squarely within families, whether or not the characters are based on people from their own life.
The first play we see, 100 Percent of Nothing is Nothing by Joan C. Guyll, delays its exploration of pluralism for exposition. The play tells the story of BC, who after her father’s death returns to Singapore to sort out the emotional and financial aftermath. The drama centres on BC’s demand for a codicil to her father’s will: she believes she’s cared for family enough to warrant an equal share of his assets, but their tradition demands that her brother gets everything of hers as she has married ‘out’ of the family. It’s form vs. substance, and it would be fascinating if only the play arrived at the conflict after the beginning rather than just before the end. Before the question is presented, there’s a lot of set-up, some clunky; the dialogue is especially schematic. For example, the stereotype that Chinese people display affection financially is mentioned frequently throughout the first half of the play. Then, when protagonist BC discovers her father has left her nothing in his will, she says out loud, ‘but if Chinese people show their love through money…’ But at the same time with such heavy dialogue, there’s a bit too much surreal humour to offset it, and it makes the tone unclear: when BC’s mother enters the stage dressed in an ill-fitting grey wig (which may be a budget constraint, but again unclear), which combined with the fact that the play centres around characters trying to find, and in some cases steal, money, we’re left wondering if it’s a family drama, farce, or a distracting combination of both.
The second play is entitled Ketchup, after the seemingly British condiment that protagonist Emily devours in every meal. The story follows British-Asian Emily and her Chinese-Vietnamese mother over the period of several years, mapping out Emily’s life story and her changing relationship with her ethnic identity. For all its entertaining scenes and funny lines, it’s a sprawling production. Wong never makes it clear what exactly it is that Emily wants: she says at the beginning that she wants to be a psychologist, but at no point during the play does she actually experience any roadblocks to achieving that goal which would drive the story further. Tensions between her British Identity and her Asian heritage are also discussed in the play, but these tensions don’t actually push the story anywhere; instead, they’re abstract topics of conversation that are placed into a life story that sort of unfolds in no particularly meaningful direction. There is, at the end of the show, a thoughtful and affecting comparison between Emily’s mother’s experience as the victim of ethnic cleansing in Vietnam, and a Syrian refugee that Emily treats as a clinical psychologist. There is also an interesting irony in how Emily wishes to become a psychologist, but is never completely successful, or at first even interested, in getting her mother to open up about her experience of genocide. This would have also been a fascinating tension to explore, but much like 100 Percent of Nothing is Nothing, this conflict is only really properly presented right before the end of the play. If this were to have been the driving force behind the action, it would have made for a much more interesting watch.
The third, and most tightly constructed play of the evening, is Chandni Lakhani’s Hema Anjali. It’s Anjali’s wedding day, and younger sister Hema is tasked by older sister Anjali to steal the shoes of the groom, Sam, as per Indian wedding tradition. The play is lucky to be privileged with the two strongest performers of the acting company, Megha Dhingra and Harriet Sharmini-Smithers. Dhingra is particularly adept at playing younger tweenage sister Hema with equal measures of naivety and youthful contempt and without straying into the realm of the cringeworthy caricature—often easy to do when playing a much younger character. The main concept of the play is simple: it’s about learning to let go of loved ones who are growing up and moving away. This is fairly well-trodden ground, and Lakhani’s play doesn’t necessarily have anything new to contribute to the topic. However, while it’s not necessarily a unique take on sibling relationships, it certainly is a well-executed one. One of the play’s best features is its non-linear structure, flitting between the present wedding day and the personal past of the two sisters, slowly building up a nuanced and touching image of two sisters whose deep love for each other is superficially disguised with the all-too recognisable level of finding your sibling really, really annoying. Lakhani’s writing captures effectively the complex dynamic and tensions between the two sisters, portraying a begrudging yet deep affection. The play is simple, but sincere.
It’s undoubtedly true that if British theatre wants to remain relevant, competitions like Taking Flight are vital to ensuring that every segment of society has a chance to tell their story (and others) publicly and be recognised for it. This is exactly the kind of thing new writing competitions are about: providing playwrights with opportunities to practice their craft and learn from mistakes. Red Dragonfly Productions should therefore be commended for their dedication to the cause of providing this opportunity specifically for those who are currently underrepresented, and might be put off by the majority white British crowd that currently operates in theatre. This competition also shows that diversity within theatre is not only good for political reasons of inclusivity (although this is reason enough) but also for creativity. When we extend our gaze beyond the majority white, Western one, we see stories that we might not have otherwise seen. Ketchup, for example, presents us with the little told story of a Chinese genocide in Vietnam that creates room to discuss the tensions between this being a part of one’s ethnic history and trying to fit in in an entirely new culture in Britain. Taking Flight shows that diversity is vital not only for the sake of the principle of fairness and inclusivity, but also for genuine creativity and theatrical development.