Pull up a chair

Centrepoint's take on "Kiwi racism"

Last updated 12:00 02/11/2012
THINK AND GIGGLE: Nathan Mudge, left, plays Jarod, stepson of Mike Hislop, played by Greg Johnson, in Centrepoint Theatre’s new show The Motor Camp.

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Warning: there are R-bombs in the script of The Motor Camp, Centrepoint Theatre's end-of-year Christmas chuckle show.

Yep, racism.

Actor Greg Johnson's slipping into his character. Redneck Mike, a plumber on summer holidays at the motor camp, beer in the chilly bin and bottle of whisky handy.

He's loud, he revels in his ignorance of other cultures, he believes the world revolves around him and that everyone shares his convictions. Johnson describes Mike as the cheerful face of Kiwi racism. "The white guy who talks about bloody Maaareees."

Everyone knows a Mike. Some of us cringe. Some of us agree with him. Some of us do both. Johnson says people really relate to Mike, he's blabbering what lots of people think.

And it could be said that Mike doesn't actually realise he's racist. He's still an innocent in terms of knowledge of the sin.

"It doesn't affect you until you understand that you are being racist," Johnson says.

Johnson's thought about it; has come to the conclusion that everyone at some point in their life has been racist or prejudiced.

"Extreme racism, that's obvious. You see it, hear it, watch what it does. But it's the secret, sneaky, sweeping shadowy bits of racism that are tricky. They lurk in the bottom of the toilet bowl, and they bite you in the bum when you don't expect it."

One of the more insidious prejudices is extreme political correctness. It's a fact that every race is different, has different characteristics, strengths and weaknesses.

There should be celebration of those differences, but the politically correct brigade can get so po-faced about racism that those differences get denied and lost. And isn't that denial a form of prejudice, all by itself?

"Take the French. We wouldn't have puff pastry without that lot," says Johnson/Mike, grinning. He's enjoying being provocative, pushing the buttons, fishing for reaction.

He's also enjoying the fact that The Motor Camp's director, Ross Jolly, wants to bring out these serious threads in what's an incredibly funny play. After all, Palmerston North audiences like a bit of think in the giggle.

"You can do this as a straight comedy, that's how it was done in Auckland," says Johnson, who was part of that production run. "Or you can bring out the bombs that are in the script."

And there's plenty to explode. Dave Armstrong's The Motor Camp is a typical story of typical New Zealanders, on a typical summer holiday at the beach, cheek-by-jowl with people they'd normally never associate with in their everyday lives.

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Redneck Mike's social climbing partner Dawn (Raquel Sims) and his adolescent, hormone-flooded stepson Jarod (Nathan Mudge) end up next to liberal university lecturer Frank (Christopher Brougham), his nice wife Jude (Danielle Mason) and their teenage daughter Holly (Lucy Lever), who's at the age that she'd rather die than be on holiday with her parents.

"There's a lot in it," says Johnson.

Auckland-based Johnson was a Palmy boy. Alumni of Freyberg High School, he came to acting relatively late in life, aged 27 or 28. He credits his daughter with changing his life path, putting his feet on the thespian trail.

"I was doing courier work in Auckland . . . I had my daughter, she was 3, in the car, driving past the school she was going to go to. I was telling her she could do anything that she wanted, anything at all. She'd go to school, have fun, learn heaps, and she could do anything in life.

"She's in her little seat in the back and I said ‘be a doctor if you want' and she says ‘doctah', she was just learning her words. I said ‘or a lawyer', and this little voice tries out the word, ‘leryer'.

"Then she says: Or a fish?"

Johnson had to break it to his daughter that no, she couldn't be a fish, but the conversation made him realise he wasn't doing what he wanted to do. He entered a stand-up comedy competition, won it, and was spotted by director Ian Mune, who wanted an actor at short notice for his film The End of the Golden Weather. Completely green, Johnson got the role.

"Muney taught me. It was an amazing experience, all these experienced actors, really helpful. I admit that the work then seemed pretty easy, but that was because it was an easy part and I didn't know much."

He's since realised that acting is something that a lot of people try, but not many can do it very well.

"It has to look real . . . it can't look like acting . . . an actor should not be seen to be acting.

"It's a tricky balance, you bring yourself to it, that's the bit of reality, but you have to know the character and what they'd do, otherwise it sounds fake."

Recent work he's proud of is the film The Insatiable Moon.

It's about what happened to people with mental illnesses, when Ponsonby's old boarding houses and institutions closed down and the inhabitants ended up wherever they drifted.

Rawiri Paratene stars as Arthur, a man whose delusion is that he's the second son of God, Jesus' little brother, and Johnson's discussion of the plot brings us back to racism and prejudice.

"People who are mentally ill, they have a really rough time in our society.

"They're the real lepers of prejudice . . . invisible, people don't see them and don't want to know."

* The Motor Camp, by Dave Armstrong, directed by Ross Jolly. At Centrepoint Theatre November 3 to December 15.

- © Fairfax NZ News

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