Toronto’s Factory Theatre revives a classic Canadian play: Banana Boys by Leon Aureus
Pop quiz: name an Asian-American male actor who’s played a romantic lead role in a mainstream movie or TV show … Trick question, that’s literally never happened. We all-but-invisible (East) Asian-American/Canadian men; yellow on the outside, white on the inside, often stereotyped as diminutive, nerdy, and asexual, are finally given a chance to step into the spotlight and break down those prejudices in Banana Boys.
Terry Woo’s 2000 novel Banana Boys was a cri de coeur for the Asian-Canadian male (more specifically, the Chinese-Canadian male). For somebody like me who had never had the privilege of seeing large parts of my identity and lived experience reflected back to me in any medium, reading Banana Boys was a watershed moment.
When I first saw Leon Aureus’ stage adaptation of Woo’s novel in 2004, it was the first time I had seen a show with an all Asian-American cast. I was anxious to re-visit it more than a decade later in the form of this remount.
When the cast took the stage at the Factory Theatre, I was immediately struck by how young the actors were, only to realize that the characters were always early 20-somethings: it’s me who’s aged. However, the relative youth of the cast members belies their ability.
The dynamic ensemble–Matthew Gin, Philip Nozuka, Simu Liu, Darrel Gatom, and Oliver Koomsatira–deftly weave between the demanding, at times farcical humour to the equally demanding moments of heightened drama in Aureus’ script. The guys have an amazing rapport that feels genuine.
The standout for me was Matthew Gin in the role of Michael Chao. He really humanized a somewhat cliché character: a child of immigrant parents torn between responsibly going to medical school or pursuing a dream of becoming a writer. Not only was I relating to the character because of similar lived experiences, but for the first time I actually empathized with Michael because Gin drew me into each beat of the character’s emotional arc with his mature, nuanced performance.
Director Nina Lee Aquino creates a stripped-down staging with a unit set and minimal props and costumes. While I thought the attempt to contemporize the production using smartphones resulted in some fussy, distracting staging and came off looking a little gimmicky, overall Aquino’s direction–focusing attention on the individual characters and giving their everyday concerns real weight–lent a clarity and emotional resonance to the sometimes fractured and frenetic script.
And what of the play itself? What has changed in the decade or so since the publication of the book and production of the original play? It’s interesting to use the play as a bit of a cultural benchmark. From my point of view not much has changed, at least not in concrete terms. Except that some of the more overt incidences of racism depicted in the script have moved online.
I do think that we, as a society, are developing more sophisticated vocabulary to describe the problem; terms like white-privilege and systemic racism weren’t commonly heard back then. Also, to be fair, some critical attention is finally starting to be paid to the issue of representation of people of colour in the media (still mostly by people of colour and our close allies) but it’s still not enough, and a work like Banana Boys is still very relevant today.
However, while the context is specific to one group’s experience, many of the issues are relatable to anyone who has ever felt like an outsider. This revisited production of Banana Boys feels fresh, vibrant and culturally relevant. It features performances by a cast of talented young actors, and it’s a thought-provoking and deeply satisfying evening of theatre.
- Banana Boys is playing at the Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst Street (at Adelaide) through November 22, 2015
- Shows run Tuesday – Saturday at 8pm, and Sunday at 2pm
- Tickets $35.00
- Tickets can be purchased online at www.factorytheatre.ca, by phone at 416.504.9971, or in-person at Factory’s Box Office
Photo of Matthew Gin, Philip Nozuka, Simu Liu, Darrel Gatom, and Oliver Koomsatira by Joseph Michael Photography