By MARIA JI.

 

Following the success of her 2015 play Orangutan, actor-playwright Alice Canton is bringing Auckland more social commentary to ponder over. In her upcoming, one-woman show WHITE/OTHER, Canton takes New Zealand and puts it under the microscope of theatre to explore how racial identities are built here.

The heroine of the show is also called Alice. This name ramps up the verisimilitude of the show, and is an interesting choice considering Canton describes the character as one who “falls down the rabbit hole” and goes on a journey of self-discovery. Just as Lewis Carroll’s Alice falls into Wonderland – where rules are unclear and change at the whims of those with power, and fairness is never considered – Canton’s Alice falls into present-day New Zealand. But unlike the blue-eyed darling of Disney lore, Canton’s Alice is a brown-eyed, bicultural woman. A woman traveling on a path paved with uncomfortable questions, probing the construction of her Chinese-Pākehā racial identity.

As a child, Canton found that she frequently had to defend her Pākehā heritage and culture, though she struggled to define it. “What is whiteness? Is it a culture, a system, a privilege?” Canton asks. To define whiteness… people seem to find this infinitely more difficult than determining what does not ‘qualify’ as white. What is glaringly obvious, however, is that despite its nebulous nature, whiteness is the cultural yardstick against which other cultures are measured: “…normal is white,” says Canton. “It is inherently white.” And everything else is different, other.

A system that allows large groups of people to be defined as aberrations from the norm is a broken system. It perpetuates harmful stereotypes that are unwittingly internalised. It reduces people’s representation in media, politics, and policy so that they are powerless to effectively challenge misrepresentation. It establishes a racial hierarchy so that ethnic minorities are pitted against one another, and there simply isn’t space for everyone at the table.

Race and racism are difficult subjects to talk about with sensitivity and acuity. Canton knows this. She also acknowledges that there is a lot of pressure when representing an incredibly diverse ethnic group that has little visibility, because you feel like you should try to represent every type of “Asian-ness”.

Aside from the fact that this is an impossible task, Canton feels that dominating a conversation by saying there is a ‘right way’ to talk about a particular ethnic group’s experience is to suggest there is only one way to talk about it. When discussing Beyoncé’s politically charged music video for her song Formation, Canton says “Beyoncé is not a poster child [for the black experience]”. Beyoncé is one woman; her music video is how she chose to represent black experience.

Race is so personal that discussing it inevitably causes some degree of conflict and controversy. However Canton believes it is imperative that people critically discuss the issues around race – and question how we ourselves may be complicit in perpetuating racism – in order for a flawed system to be able to change. WHITE/OTHER is her conversation starter.

 

You can join the conversation by buying a ticket here. WHITE/OTHER plays from Tuesday 12 – Thursday 21 April at The Basement Theatre, Auckland.

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