Let’s start at the end.
There is a reason for this, in fact many reasons, but mostly because, as Jean-Luc Godard once said, “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” This isn’t necessarily a story; the work and its creators asked for a review and this is my response, as a critic and a dramaturg. But having said that, Alice Canton’s WHITE/OTHER demands more than a formulaic deconstruction, so bear with me while we unpack a few of the multiple narratives at work here.
The white man singing David Bowie’s ‘China Girl’ is our first pit-stop. It’s the anti-climax in a play that is in so many ways anti-dramatic. Not without its theatrical elements it reaches its crescendo in a moment that is steeped in near (and not quite successful) pathos and then shifts attention to a crusty bulbous character offering a less than appealing rendition of Bowie’s ‘China Girl’.
As Sharon Mazer, Professor at AUT in Theatre and Performance Studies, aptly summarised after the show: Fascinating.
That a strong, eloquent, dexterous performer like Canton, who has a story that can potentially pack enough punch to shatter the proverbial glass ceiling, should choose to close her one-woman show with a performance by Alan Cutting is interesting enough to merit a paper of its own. Not because it’s laced with nuanced commentary but because this is the second show in the past two months that seems to have required a validation of the ‘white’ persona (and that too a male character) in order to support a female character who has agency of her own.
It’s frustrating and equally, as Mazer says, fascinating. This simplification of whiteness is also worth unpacking further. Does the white male encapsulate the ever-present antagonist, the one who is ‘out there’ beyond the theatre doors and who is synonymous with all that is wrong with the world? What of all the ‘white’ members in the audience? Where do they sit on this spectrum?
Canton’s work is on a journey and it is successful because it raises questions: important and worthy questions that should be fodder for many foyer discussions. But in this iteration it fails to acknowledge that perceived or real difference is tricky to navigate. It’s far too simple to make the binary of ‘white’ and ‘other’ in a world that confounds us with histories where Greeks, Italians and Jews were all considered ‘black’ at some point, and Japanese were considered ‘white’; where increasing numbers of people from former refugee backgrounds will make up the fabric of our nation and where Indigenous voices occupy a distinctive place in the polyphony of voices.
It also gives undue power and privilege to one group and homogenises the rest. While this may be the exact situation that Canton wishes to overturn, it needs to begin by decolonising the world of WHITE/OTHER.
The second half of the show holds promise and hopefully this can be developed further. Personal, specific and relevant – there are some very vivid moments that are brought to life through an authentic connection to the images that Canton creates: the dismay at a white man in yellowface playing chairman Mao, the ‘spray and walk away’ commercial, her own hardly complimentary casting roles in Miss Saigon, and the list goes on.
However, occasionally they do risk getting lost in self-indulgence and tantrum-throwing and this is a default that the work falls back on. It is courageous but doesn’t step beyond the parameters of this cocooned world that it creates.
Canton is an engaging performer, authentic and agile. She moves around the cluttered faux band rehearsal space with deliberation and yes, there are layers here too. Her groove is distorted, the sounds become warped, she has to endlessly re-arrange her configuration, and the harmonies are out of balance – nice touches but never quite enough. We get caught up in watching ‘staged’ action on illuminated white platforms and some beautifully lit moments of Chinese dance – but then what?
Going back further, the first 30 minutes are steeped in clichés and repetition: the banality of everyday life, the all-too-familiar question of ‘where are you from’, and inevitably there is nothing challenging or new about what it feels like to be othered’. Of course this in no way implies that the statements, memories or provocations that Canton makes will have no effect. In and of themselves they are political assertions, voices that demand recognition and visibility – and to this end, her work is commendable.
But it has been done before. The aura of the 80s and its faux music is just not enough for the demands of 2016. Holly Chappell and Tom Eason have directed the show but, like Bowie’s song, the work seems to only skim the surface of the sodden promises of white culture: “I’ll give you television, I’ll give you eyes of blue, I’ll give you a man who wants to rule the world”.
There is much more that the team can deliver. Even Christine Urquhart’s set design and Ruby Reihana-Wilson lighting, although evocative, are mostly awkwardly juxtaposed. It’s a production that is striving to reach hugely important heights but it hasn’t quite got there yet.
The binaries of white and other (and the obvious ironies that go with it) demand that we interrogate the other ‘others’ – but this is a dialogue on the complexity of being both White and Asian. This is a personal work and exclusively reflective of only one ‘other’ lived experience, which is perfectly appropriate and valid – but it does not cater for the diversity within diversity; it does not tease out the irregularities of these dichotomies.
Then again, perhaps that was never its intention but there is a glimmer of a pact here that could deliver the unexpected; a suggestion that that this production could offer more than a commentary on whiteness and otherness, more than a personalised introspective musing, just more than what we’re currently given.
Canton’s work has immense promise. But it needs bolder direction and further support to move the story forward. This isn’t 1983.