Review: Brown Balls (fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company)

By Wayne Leung

Toronto’s fu-GEN Asian Canadian Theatre Company presents Brown Balls, Byron Abalos’ irreverent play examining Asian male stereotypes, from May 3 to May 15, at the Factory Studio Theatre.

Brown Balls is an edgy, satirical play that tackles Asian male stereotypes. Being an Asian-American male myself (technically, I’m Canadian but I’m going to use “American” in the broader sense to mean North American), I’m something of an expert on Asian male stereotypes in Western culture.

I’m all too aware of the general (mis-) perceptions of Asian males among Westerners: that we are short, scrawny, effete, bookish, timid, subordinate, asexual, small-dicked, mamma’s boys. For the record, I’m none of the above.

Brown Balls is a long-overdue cri de coeur for the Asian-American male. It explodes the numerous stereotypes and misperceptions and exposes them for what they are: ignorance.

Asian males have a history of discrimination in the US and Canada. Chinese men suffered abuse while building the national railways and indignities like the Head Tax and Chinese Exclusion Act. They were also forbidden from attending university or practicing professions such as medicine and law, even most manufacturing sector jobs were off-limits.

The resourcefulness of these men lead to the advent of the Chinese laundry and the Chinese restaurant. Opening these businesses was often the only option available to them. Washing and cooking were considered “women’s work” and therefore didn’t pose a threat to the White male establishment; an example of the emasculation of the Asian-American male that carries through to today.

Even nowadays, Asian-Americans are shamefully under-represented in the media. Think about it, when was the last time you saw an Asian-American male as the romantic lead in a film or television series?

What kind of message does it send to Western audiences when Asian-American males are never portrayed as attractive or objects of desire? Imagine if the only representations of White American males in the media were Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin, the kind of skewed perception you’d have of that group.

The sad truth is the standard of beauty in the North American media is a White standard. It’s a standard that someone like me can never attain or even aspire to. It’s also a subtle way of ensuring that colonial attitudes of old still hold an influence.

Brown Balls features three main characters: the Korean, PJ (Sean Baek); the Chinese, JP (Richard Lee); and the half Filipino, half Scottish, Charles (David Yee). The trio emerges to seat the audience as soon as the house opens. They each sport clownishly drawn-out Asian accents and exaggerated mannerisms. It sets the irreverent tone for the evening.

They seat the audience around a catwalk-like thrust stage (designed by Jackie Chau), which makes the already-cozy Factory Studio Theatre feel even more intimate as audience members on either side of the catwalk are seated facing each other. The style of the show is very direct and throughout the course of the evening the actors mingle amongst the audience, there is no illusion of there being a fourth wall here.

As the play begins the audience is told that we are at the First Asian Canadian Kultural Metropolitan Electronics Exhibition (FACKMEE) but then things immediately take a turn. The actors drop their Asian caricatures, race to bar the exits of the theatre and, in unaccented English, subsequently inform us that we are under siege and that this is not FACKMEE but FACCCUU – the First Asian Canadian Cultural Conference for Unified Understanding.

The show that subsequently unfolds is a ribald, brazen, madcap pastiche delivered at an unrelenting pace. One by one, Asian male stereotypes are dragged uncomfortably into the spotlight and skewered in what turns out to be a cross between an academic lecture and a sketch comedy show.

The show isn’t without its flaws. I feel the direction is somewhat scattershot and unfocused, the material can get a little didactic at times, there are abrupt shifts in tone that are a bit jarring and the ending lacks a satisfying resolution. Still, I’d encourage you to see it. The show will alternately make you laugh, think and squirm and it presents a unique perspective and addresses important issues that are rarely given a voice.

I’m well aware that I’m probably the choir this show is preaching to and spent much of the evening emphatically nodding in agreement. My non-Asian play-going companion told me he learned quite a bit about the Asian-American male experience that really surprised him as he’d never thought about these issues before. However, the nervous laughter of the non-Asian audience members seated behind me at what I thought were inappropriate moments makes me question whether this show will have a reach beyond its niche audience.

I hope other Asian-American males will see this show and feel empowered by it but I also hope that they’ll bring along their non-Asian friends. It can be a valuable tool for understanding and will hopefully foster dialogue. If nothing else, it’s an entertaining 85-minutes of theatre.

Details:

  • Runs from May 3-15, 2011 at Factory Studio Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide St)
  • Tuesday-Saturday 8pm/Saturday & Sunday 2pm
  • Tickets $10-$26 (surcharges may apply)

Photo credit:

– Sean Baek, Richard Lee and David Yee, Photo by Maciej Roszkowski