A multimedia production of David Yee’s new play takes the stage at Toronto’s Theatre Centre
As I watched No Foreigners, a co-production between fu-GEN Theatre Company and Hong Kong Exile produced in association with Theatre Conspiracy and presented at The Theatre Centre, I was reminded of an essay by Wayson Choy, “I’m a Banana and Proud of It,” wherein he describes his long road to accepting “the paradox of being both Chinese and not Chinese.”
This is the same paradox the play explores, using the setting of Chinese shopping malls as “racialized spaces of cultural creation and clash.” Text writer David Yee asks us: what does it mean to be Chinese? What is it like to feel like a foreigner in your own country, or to your own background? Do you belong everywhere, or nowhere? The questions are universal; the way the play deals with them is unique, fascinating, and thoroughly amusing.
This cultural remove that many of the characters feel from their ethnic group is ably mimicked by the barrier the play creates between performers and audience. No Foreigners isn’t your typical piece of theatre; a multimedia production, it’s filled with projected text and miniature figures manipulated and voiced by actors (transferred to screens via micro-to-macro camera work).
We’re presented with a mysterious, kaleidoscopic tour through the mall via its denizens, seeing both the obvious stops (the travel agency, the electronics store), and the darker, more surreal corners. This mall is a funhouse, bursting with secrets and suspect “fun facts” which serve as cultural commentary. Even the projected maps and blueprints twist as we make our way through; everything seems a little “off.”
Like so many, the play’s titular foreigner is Chinese by ancestry but not in terms of cultural knowledge. He’s one of a number of characters on a journey to rediscover the past while clashing with older generations. This rediscovery is seen through the lens of retold myths and stories.
Performed in Cantonese and English, with English surtitles presenting the characters’ unspoken thoughts (and translating most, but not all, of the Cantonese; I’m pretty sure I missed a couple of jokes), the play cycles through the amusing (the scam website a store owner creates to force business back into the physical mall) and strangely profound (a digression into the small tragedy that is the koi cull of koi “fry” not colourful enough to make it).
The shadow puppet movement is mostly static, small suggestions of life, save an entertaining stylized movie-style violent swordfight that appears prerecorded. A number of neat effects help animate these figures, and the whole thing has a rough-edged aesthetic that’s sort of like what happens when marionettes meet Windows XP. Strangely, it works, coupled with an effective soundtrack that amplifies the humour and emotions.
April Leung and Derek Chan do excellent voice work; when they briefly step into the spotlight (as Chan does for a hilarious and mildly interactive karaoke sequence), it’s momentarily electric, a reminder of the difference between watching a person’s face and a screen.
Understandably, the show asks more questions than it answers; it’s a stepping stone for growth and conversation. That’s a good thing, but it also means that the ending is more visually compelling than dramaturgically satisfying.
In Choy’s essay, he concludes that the experience of being “The Other” is something we all share. Though No Foreigners is, of course, primarily about the Chinese-Canadian experience, most of us can both learn from the specifics of the production and relate to the feeling of assimilating away from our heritage, then taking refuge in odd spaces because they’re replete with eerie cultural nostalgia.
Call it “Legends of the Mall.”
- No Foreigners runs until February 25, 2018 at The Theatre Centre (1115 Queen West)
- Shows are Thursday-Saturday at 7:00pm, with a Sunday matinee at 2:00pm
- Tickets are $18-28 and can be purchased online or by calling the Theatre Centre’s Box Office at 416-538-0988
- The Thursday, February 22nd show includes a post-show talkback
- The show runs 80 minutes without intermission
Production photo by Daniel O’Shea