A new play by Toronto’s Silk Bath Collective is chilling, timely and relevant
I remember being stunned speechless at the end of Silk Bath; a searing, satirical play about the experiences of Chinese-Canadian immigrants by Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan, and Gloria Mok, which enjoyed successful runs both at the 2016 Toronto Fringe Festival and the Next Stage Festival. The three playwrights have taken that raw, pointed play, refined it and adapted it into a new work: Yellow Rabbit.
Yellow Rabbit retains the bleak tone and dystopian setting of its predecessor as well as the framing device of a Hunger Games-like competition. After the collapse of society and the ensuing race wars, a Man (En Lai Mah) and Woman (April Leung) enter a competition for admission into a sanctuary city for the Chinese called Rich Man Hill. To win, they must pass a series of increasingly draconian tests aimed at proving their racial purity and loyalty to a mysterious figure called “Mother” (Amanda Zhou) and her Child (Bessie Cheng).
The ensemble delivers consistently strong performances with Mah and Leung doing much of the heavy-lifting as the relationship between Man and Woman constantly balances on the knife-edge of trust. Director Jasmine Chen successfully uses that tension between her two leads as the focal point to hold the audience’s attention and to offset the ominous tone of the piece.
The bleak, post-apocalyptic setting is brought vividly to life by some excellent production design work by set designer Jackie Chau, lighting designer Jareth Li and sound designer Miquelon Rodriquez.
But I was most impressed by the work Cheng, Jan, and Mok have done on the script with dramaturgs Andy Cheng and Paula Wing. While Silk Bath examined the stereotypes and systemic oppression experienced by Chinese-Canadians, Yellow Rabbit delves deeper into more challenging territory and the result is a more sophisticated play.
I was glad to see the work retain its unapologetic cultural specificity. There are allusions in the script to the internalized racism and the effects of colonialism experienced by members of the Chinese community. Those of us who are members of the community will recognize them immediately. It’s the same kind of internalized racism that causes me to reflexively answer “Hong Kong” when I’m prodded to reveal where my parents are from; even though they only lived there briefly and my family is actually from Mainland China. But for audience members who aren’t part of the community; there are no explanatory commas.
In the years since the first version of the show premiered, the world has changed drastically and the playwrights subsequently shifted the focus of the show as a response. In Yellow Rabbit, they use Chinese identity as a device to explore some of the political realities we face as a larger society today.
In our post-Trump, post-Brexit world, we see heightened anti-immigrant rhetoric and a strong bent toward tribalism—manifesting itself in its most extreme form of nationalism—in many parts of the world. Mother’s Rich Man Hill is an example of the type of homogenous ethno-state at the logical conclusion of nationalist ideology.
Throughout the show, Man and Woman grapple with the conflict between their desperate desire to retreat to the safety and presumed sense of community that Mother promises while at the same time weighing the parts of their humanity they’ll have to sacrifice in order to belong.
We all have that innate bent toward tribalism that manifests when we feel threatened or frightened and we actively suppress it with our rational minds. Yellow Rabbit explores that conflict in an extreme, exaggerated setting and while the results aren’t exactly black-and-white, the exploration itself is important and worthwhile.
The end result is a show that isn’t quite as raw, searing, or pointed but one that is more nuanced and sophisticated and is nonetheless chilling, timely and relevant.
- Yellow Rabbit is playing through December 1, 2018 at the Young Centre for the Arts, 50 Tank House Lane, in the Distillery Historic District, Toronto.
- Tickets $25
- Tickets are available in person at the venue box office, by phone at 416-866-8666 or online at soulpepper.ca.
Photo of Amanda Zhou by Alfred Chow