Review: Asian Kiwiana – elevating the voices of young Asian New Zealanders

Ruth Agnew reviews Asian Kiwiana from Yugto Productions at Little Andromeda on Friday 18 June 2021.

Please note, this review is not impartial; the Asian Kiwiana cast, crew and creatives sang their way into this Chiwi chick’s (Chiwi= Chinese New Zealander) heart. It’s hard to view a show impartially when your eyes are full of tears.

Asian Kiwiana is a cabaret show created by six NASDA students who use song to explore their identities as performers and what it means to be Asian. The performers (Asuka Kubo, Jewel Whimp, Karl Omotoy, Jayshri Ratnam, Joelle Baclig, Tristan Valencia and pianist Marie Ono) are all astoundingly talented, and leave the audience in no doubt that the face of Asians in Aotearoa musical theatre will not be represented by yellowface restagings of The Mikado. 

Upon entering the performance space, audiences are greeted with the seemingly dichotomous juxtaposition of comfort and formality. The cast reclines on couches, chatting quietly red-carpet ready in stunning formal wear that reflects their cultural identities as clearly as does the shoe rack at the edge of the stage. Their stockinged feet signify they are inviting us into their space. The opening dialogue segues from cosy and conversational to the heart-swelling, rousing Song of Tonight from Hamilton. The show is designed to create a sense of comfort, then change the tone swiftly, echoing sometimes conflicting emotions raised in the stories shared. Through a blend of showtunes, original composition, dialogue, conversation and soliloquy, we get a glimpse into an exploration of Asian identity in Aotearoa. 

The stories shared reflect the breadth of the Asian diaspora within Aotearoa, not only in counties of origin represented, but also the complexity of cultural identity. Tristan Valencia (snap snap; this young performer and director’s star quality is blindingly bright!) is achingly honest in his revelations about being Filipino and queer. Jayshri Ratnam (fittingly described on the Asian Kiwiana Facebook page as a “Fijian Indian goddess”) discusses being the only brown skinned girl in her Westport school, which ties into stunning songstress Joelle Baclig’s struggle against the perpetuation of lighter skin being a beauty ideal. Jewel Whimp’s lament at losing the language with which she could speak to her Gung Gung spoke to me on a very personal level, as did her unpacking of what it means to be “mixed”. This is intensified by the power of Baclig and Auka Kubo singing in Tagalog and Japanese respectively.  

The format and time constraints prevented the cast from further delving into the huge issues raised, like cultural constructs and casual racism. Perhaps this leaves the door open for further forays for Yugto Productions; I would very happily return for a follow up solo show featuring any one of the performers. 

The confronting moments were softened by humour. I adored the sweet, self-depracatory manner of Karl Omotoy, and the opportunity to stand and dance in solidarity with Ratnam and Baclig. 

It was a privilege to hear the stories of these talented singers, actors, dancers, musicians, writers and creators. These young performers belong centre stage, and their voices will be heard. Doh je, xie xie, salamat, arigato, nga mihi, Yugto Productions. 

Asian Kiwiana runs 18 and 19 June 2021 at Little Andromeda.

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