In Review: The Mooncake and the Kūmara
Playing 5th – 10th March at the Loft, Q Theatre, Auckland, NZ
Playwright: Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen
Direction: Katie Wolfe
Cast: Yoson An, Charles Chan, Kip Chapman, Awhina-Rose Henare Ashby, Waimihi Hotere, Chye-Ling Huang
Design Team: John Verryt, Paul Lim, Drew McMillan, Elizabeth Whiting
Reviewed by: Maria Ji, March 6th 2015

I’m waiting at the bus stop after the show.Yoson An, whom I’ve just seen as the endearing Yee falling in love with sanguine wahine Elsie (Awhina-Rose Henare Ashby) for the last hour and forty minutes, walks up to wait for the same bus. What are the odds! I introduce myself, and so begins an unanticipated discussion about the debut of Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen’s play in the 2015 Auckland Arts Festival.

The Mooncake and the Kumara is set in a New Zealand town at a time when Chinese men (women weren’t permitted into the country to prevent ‘breeding’) experienced extreme racism, and Māori communities were being dismantled, one plot of land at a time.

Despite – or perhaps due to – the town being at “the edge of the Earth”, it – like the play – is also the cutting edge of social progress.

To make a melting pot, though, you need more than simply the melting of hearts. The constant presence of Yee’s Chinese wife Leilan (Chye-ling Huang) reminds us of the severance of ties to the family back in the village of Long Gai that is going on throughout this play.

On the bus, I tell An that I love how Leilan has been choreographed into several scenes of New Zealand life, as well as being given time to talk about her life back in China as a “small frog” in a small well. She is a figure of the past that can never be shaken off by Yee and his stubborn father Choi (the hilarious Charles Chan), and Huang does well in creating ambivalence in the audience, though accent issues interfere.

Should we empathise with this innocent girl still grappling with the trammels of duty? Acknowledge the bubbles of annoyance surfacing from time to time at her maudlin monologues? When our affections are so strongly swayed by the budding tenderness between Yee and Elsie, it is hard to see the denouement as anything but inevitable.

The marketing states that this cross-cultural romance will be “told in a rich mixture of English, Maori and Cantonese”. As the characters progress from constantly weighing each other up to learning to build a life together, the mix of languages becomes a refreshing blend. Translations aren’t offered; there’s none of the frustrating, nuance-lacking subtitling one sees at the opera. But it is no hindrance to communication if – like many of the characters and audience members – you really try to listen.

Last week I was told yet again by a monoglot that it is rude to speak a foreign language around people who don’t understand what you’re saying. The presumption that people of this thought-coterie are making, it seems, is that all languages other than English are ‘foreign’ and have place in neither the public nor private sphere when English-speakers are present. The script in The Mooncake and the Kumara this idea, and is a charming celebration of the lingual diversity in New Zealand.

After a moment of distraction due to fireworks from Skin of Fire, our conversation turns to the character Rodger Finlayson (Kip Chapman). Finlayson is the pākehā landowner under whose pathetic thumb Yee, Choi, Elsie, and Elsie’s mother Wae (Waimihi Hotere) have been placed. He contrasts with the other characters in several ways, one being that I understand every word he utters, including those pompously poached from the French language (“tête-à-tête”, “soirée”). I am also aware that his words are almost always laced with ulterior motive.

But vulnerability, stemming from a pitiful and somewhat thin backstory, riddles Finlayson’s chutzpah with all sorts of holes. Not vilifying the white man is one of the great strengths of this funny, well-written play, and keeps it merry as well as shrewd.

Some of these things I tell An, some I don’t; of course, there are many things I wish we had had time to talk about. But the length of our conversation is limited to two bus stages and quickly comes to an end.

Before I get off, I make a remark about the rose-tinted spectacles through which this slice of New Zealand history is viewed. The story is loosely based on the relationship between the playwright’s grandparents, but as with The Imitation Game and The Theory of Everything, when the spectacles come off at the end of the show, it does occur to me that reality was unlikely to be so rosy. An quickly confirms my doubts, but also says he believes it’s important for portrayals full of hope to exist in media so that they can influence our present and future realities.

I tag off the bus, still thinking about his words and about this gem of a play that shows that it is possible to compare and cherish others at the same time.