Sunday, September 21, 2014

Theatre: Letters Home and What Do They Call Me

Letters Home 
Written and performed by Joe Lui
Direction mentor Humphrey Bower
Until October 4

What Do They Call Me
By Eva Johnson
Directed by Eva Grace Mullaley
Performed by Ebony McGuire, Amy Smith and Alyssa Thompson
The Blue Room
Until September 27


The brave, skilled and endlessly industrious Joe Lui has been writer, composer, producer, director, sound and lighting designer and/or musician for very many of our most adventurous and confronting productions. He’s also something of an enigma.
Born Lui Shang Yu into a conservative Singaporean Chinese family, Lui is bitterly estranged from his parents and exiled from Singapore because he refused to do national service. In his one-man show, Letters Home, the story he tells is his own.
A voracious consumer of culture, from high art to American Football, Lui is, in many ways, an invention of himself—in one brilliant moment he speaks with the Singlish pronunciation of the young man who arrived in Perth to study years ago; the effect is as revealing as it is startling.
Lui has plenty to think about, and plenty to say. Letters Home is a torrent of words—part self-analysis, part confession, part didacticism—about Chinese culture, families, sex and death.
What emerges is a self-portrait of a man who holds very firm ideas but is still discovering how he came by them.
We learn about his heroes, his philosophy of art and sex, Chinese food and rituals. We also learn that he’s stubborn, pugnacious and believes in work rather than inspiration.
What he learns in Letters Home, though, is that you can reject things—family, country and way of life—without having to hate them.
Letters Home is visually rich (much credit to Cherish Marrington’s set design, Chris Donnelly’s lighting and Mia Holton’s video design) and much more tightly staged than it appears (Humphrey Bower collaborated with Lui on its direction).
I can’t imagine any of the hundreds of people who’ve been amazed and intrigued by Joe Lui over the years will want to miss it; for those who haven’t, you should take the opportunity to meet a quite remarkable person. 
What Do They Call Me, Eva Johnson’s seminal 1990 play about the lives of the three women of an Aboriginal family, was originally conceived as a one-woman show. This revival has a different actor for each of the characters; the brave, combative Connie (Amy Smith) and her daughters, the “assimilated” Regina (Alyssa Thompson) and activist Alison (Ebony McGuire).
Smith, Thompson and McGuire are all fine, and the director Eva Grace Munelly manages the narration and the transitions between her actors well, but inevitably each performance is one-dimensional, a quick sketch. The challenge for a single actor of moving between the characters would have made for more compelling theatre.
That aside, it’s important that we see revivals of work from the back catalogue of Aboriginal theatre. Plays like What Do They Call Me, by reminding us of where indigenous people have been, make us realise how far we all still have to go.

This review appeared in The West Australian 20.9.14

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