Sharp, insightful, “unfinished by design” play explores identity on the Toronto stage
What is it like to be mixed-race in a society that seems equally fixated on getting you to choose a singular self and asking, “no, where are you really from?” That’s the question plaguing the central characters of Mixie and the Halfbreeds, now being presented by fu-GEN Theatre at the Pia Bouman School, Scotiabank Studio Theatre. As in the quest for identity, there’s no straightforward answer.
Beginning as a series of radio sketches by playwrights Julie Tamiko Manning and Adrienne Wong, Mixie originally premiered as a play in Vancouver in 2009. This revamped and rewritten version stars Zoé Doyle and Vanessa Trenton as Mixie and Trixie, new neighbours, both mixed-race and followed by an elegant, nearly silent and blonde-wigged shadow only they can see (Dedra McDermott and Alexandra Crenian, respectively).
In a quick, action-packed 70 minutes, we get to know Mixie, half-Japanese and primarily Japanese-identifying, and Trixie, half-Chinese and identifying as anything but. Bottle-blonde and bubbly, and egged on by her equally-blonde shadow, Trixie breaks into motivational speeches about self-actualization into the more successful and attractive person you want to be. She seems to believe herself, up to a point, but her dark roots are starting to show. Introverted Mixie is more fed up by her pushy other half, preferring the company of Shortgrain, her rice-shaped-and-filled pillow/security blanket.
This rice has magical transformative and heritage-restorative powers (in a fun moment, the characters reflect on just how many cultures claim rice as a traditional starch), and acts as a catalyst for the two to be whisked away to a land populated by a diverse (yet identically blonde) dancing chorus, who steal Shortgrain and run through a mirror-filled forest of modular boxes.
Throughout the play, there are sharp, specific insights, such as when a great meta- discussion about appropriation coincides with the reminder that the main actresses are not the original playwrights, and may not even share the same heritage. Can one mixed-race person tell another’s story? Are they interchangeable? Audience interaction, too, manages to be both pointed yet not uncomfortable, even when it’s trying to find the lines we don’t want to cross.
A number of sketches are linked together by a trip through a fantasy world. The scenes in the fantasy forest are visually appealing, and I enjoyed the evolving relationship that Mixie and Trixie had with both each other and themselves. However, the dialogue here gets more stilted. As well, some shots at Canada’s issues with multiculturalism, while completely accurate, come off as less than inspired in delivery.
Similarly, the jokes about the blondes (to distract them, ask for help with yoga! Mention Taylor Swift!) are on the tame side, like a Facebook meme posted by a relative of a family friend. Maybe that’s the point – stereotypes aren’t particularly funny or fresh, and we’ve relied on them far too long for jokes about anything we see as “different.” Still, I wished the wit of the show were more of a match for its heart.
Costumes (Jackie Chau) are eye-catching and bold, the pink blazers and aggressive blonde wigs of the mostly-silent chorus contrasting with Mixie’s conservative outfit (it features a Hello Kitty pocket, filled with onigiri for emergency snacks). Featureless masks, used judiciously, are atmospherically spooky. In the fourth-wall-breaking interludes, perfectly-tailored ringmaster outfits with metaphor-laden headwear immediately let us know the tone of the sketches.
The best part of the experience, for me, was the music (composed by Deanna Choi), and the movement interludes. The dancing and choreography (by Ming-Bo Lam), mostly performed by the chorus and Mixie and Trixie’s blonde shadows, is terrific, energetic, and lots of fun.
Race and identity are difficult and nuanced subjects to tackle, and this show feels unfinished by design, despite its update. As it was, I enjoyed my time in Mixie and Trixie’s world, but I’d have to say my feelings were mixed.
- Mixie and the Halfbreeds plays at the Pia Bouman School, Scotiabank Studio Theatre (6 Noble St.) until April 15, 2018
- Shows run Tuesday-Saturday at 8pm, with Saturday and Sunday 2pm matinees
- Tickets range from $20-35 and can be purchased online
Photo of Zoé Doyle by Dahlia Katz