WHITE/OTHER by Alice Canton
Tuesday 12th April, 2016
Basement Theatre
3.5/5 Stars
Reviewed by MARIA JI

It is a sad and not very well-known fact that racism towards the Chinese is deeply entrenched in our national history. Following a wave of (previously welcome) immigrants during a labour shortage, anti-Chinese prejudice tainted New Zealand policy for decades. Chinese immigrants had to pay an expensive head tax to enter the country from 1881 until 1944, resulting in the separation of family members and years of debt; severe immigration restrictions were enforced; and Chinese were not able to get old age pension until 1936.

How much of this discrimination resides in contemporary New Zealand culture? How does it impact racial identity for those with Chinese heritage today? These are a couple of the many big questions that playwright-actor Alice Canton skillfully grapples with in her show WHITE/OTHER.

The protagonist Alice, a Pākehā-Chinese woman, embarks on an illuminating exploration of racial identity. The physical landscape of her journey has an all-white, industrial aesthetic that evokes the sensibility of Benjamin Zephaniah’s poem White Comedy. The audience too is constantly a part of the design, as our seats are slightly uneven due to a white block propping up one side. This nod to a cognitive psychology experiment that found some people could be tilted as much as 35 degrees without noticing (given their environmental cues were also tilted) is just one of the many considered layers that make up this thought-provoking show.

An award-winning emerging artist, Canton brings many skills to the stage including the physicality that made her 2015 show Orangutan so enthralling to watch. Whether Alice is going through the motions of the daily grind, performing a Chinese dance with a white shawl in a poignant and dynamic visual metaphor, or responding in silence, each moment gleams with purpose.

If WHITE/OTHER trips up, it’s in the scene when Alice suddenly bursts into tears and profanity, and directs it at racist white people. Though anger and moral acuity can occupy the heart at the same time, people are inclined to doubt the validity of their coupling. Perhaps this is what Canton is trying to criticise. If so, it’s a jab at respectability politics that doesn’t quite hit home: the emotional explosion feels divorced from the buildup, and undermines the audience’s connection with the character, thereby diminishing the impact of the charged, thought-provoking finale.

In the end, the strengths and potential of this show both reside in the subtle and the complex. By subtle I don’t mean restrained – there’s no wallflower commentary at this party. But it is the moments where we are shown, rather than told, the splinters of racism and their very personal impact on Alice that in turn have the biggest impact on us.

As for complexity, WHITE/OTHER is already a multi-faceted and valuable theatrical work that will inevitably stimulate discussion. However, this show requires and deserves further development. Alice’s inner conflict about her whiteness is overly simple and could be cast as a greyer beast. We are shown shards of Alice’s self to convey a message, but see too little of the woman affected by the collective suffering discrimination causes.

WHITE/OTHER makes us notice the crooked room we live in, and question our complicity and alignment with its construction – no easy task, and one that is adeptly accomplished. Though it will take more than seeing the crooked room for us to love our crooked neighbours with our crooked hearts, seeing it is an essential first step. Take it.

Playing at Basement Theatre, Auckland until Thursday 21st April, 2016