Review: The First Asian AB

FAIR PLAY: Ben The is Willy is a 13-year-old homestay student from Malaysia who wants to play rugby in The First Asian AB.
FAIR PLAY: Ben The is Willy is a 13-year-old homestay student from Malaysia who wants to play rugby in The First Asian AB.

When Bats Theatre first put out its call for plays for the Rugby World Cup 18 months ago, playwright Renee Liang's interest was piqued.

It wasn't because she loved the game. "I grew up in New Zealand, but because I was a girl and I was Asian, I never had to learn about it."

It was because she thought it might offer a good lens on New Zealand, and an avenue into exploring the experience of immigrants here.

"I decided to make my character not know anything about rugby either, so I learnt with them."

She banked on some assistance from her cast and crew  all Kiwi males  but they turned out to be as hopeless as her.

"We attempted to go to a rugby game together, but we didn't because it was too cold and rainy, and we wanted noodles instead."

So in the end, she put herself through a sort of crash course on rugby, surprising her husband by asking him to take her along to games, watching archival footage on YouTube, and even learning some basic tackling techniques in her lounge. "It's really tiny, so it was pretty hilarious."

Now she's a fan. She's seeing a new level of complexity and psychology to the game. She likes the patterns and angles of it. She even went down to Auckland's Viaduct for the opening ceremony of the Rugby World Cup.

"I was able to watch the game and yell at the screen like everybody else, although I still can't tell all the finicky little rules."

Being a writer, she has even found a kind of metaphor for friendship in the game, which she hopes subtly makes its way into her play.

"It's about knowing your team really, really well, and friendship is about knowing your friend really, really well and what they're going to do, and supporting them in that."

The friends in The First Asian AB are Willy, a 13-year-old homestay student from Malaysia (played by Ben The), and Mook, a New Zealand-born Samoan boy (Paul Fagamalo).

They're schoolmates in Timaru. (Liang has lived there herself.)

Living in a predominantly Caucasian town, the pair face habitual scrutiny because of their race.

"The racism isn't the huge kind of racism. It's the subtle stuff that I guess most immigrants, including me, really, would experience on an almost daily basis. So it's not: 'Go back to your country'. It's: 'Do you understand? Do you speak English?' "

Liang also thinks it might be the first Kiwi play to look at the "1.5 generation"  those immigrants who aren't born here, but still spend a formative part of their childhood here. It's a very awkward experience for many people, she says.

"You're becoming an adult, but you're not quite an adult, and you don't have the powers of being an adult, but you're in this new country, and quite often you're by yourself, because your parents aren't there.

"It's difficult. It's a really unusual situation to be in, but it's one that has been affecting a lot of people in New Zealand for the last 15 or so years."

Still, despite some of the serious themes, the play is a comedy too. Both actors have to leap between roles, including female ones.

Liang is particularly happy with an embarrassing scene she has written at a school ball.

"I was just laughing when I walked into rehearsal. I was like, 'Ha, ha, I've written a slow dance scene for you guys'."

Liang stepped into the teenage world deliberately. As well as being a playwright, she is a paediatrician. That interest in youth health connects easily with trying to understand how teenagers behave, she says. In fact, she argues that there's not such a leap between medicine and theatre.

"Doctor training is about looking at people and trying to understand them, and that's kind of what a playwright does as well  particularly looking at what people are saying and trying to look deeper at the motivations."

As for why 'All Black' isn't in the title, it's because of legal problems, she says. When she first contacted the New Zealand Rugby Union, a marketing person was very excited about helping out.

"And the next thing I got a really formal email back, essentially saying, 'Unless you apply for a trade licence and pay the requisite lawyers' fees, etc, we won't be able to do it. And we might have to verify your portrayal of the term All Black.' It just sounded way too messy."

If you're wondering whether there has been an Asian AB, Liang says no.

"Not that we know of. You could argue that one of the All Blacks could have Chinese blood, because the Samoan-Chinese lineage is strong.

"And I mean people always say Tana Umaga looks very Asian, but officially he's not. No, there are no professional Asian rugby players in New Zealand." That's at least until Willy has his way.


The First Asian AB is on at Bats Theatre from tonight until October


The Wellington theatre is putting on three plays to mark the Rugby World Cup. As well as The First Asian AB, there's Death by Cheerleader, which is on until Saturday night.

As the name promises, this comedy follows three cheerleaders as they take their love of the All Blacks to the 2015 World Cup in Dubai.

"Hair and trust are torn, nails and hearts are broken, spray tans and secrets are revealed as team loyalty disintegrates," the show's promoters promise.

Then there's The Engine Room, a political take on the rugby, which toggles between the 2008 election battle between Helen Clark and John Key, and what they both might have been doing during the 1981 Springbok tour.

It's been partly inspired by Key's famous comment that he "couldn't remember" where he stood on the tour.

The Dominion Post