By James Karas
Banana Boys is a complex play about Canadians of Asian origin who are neither assimilated nor outsiders to the dominant culture of Canada. The play’s five characters are smart, articulate young men who speak perfect English and find themselves in a culture laden with prejudices and preconceptions about them and their forebears. As the title suggests derisively, these men are yellow on the outside but white inside. Are they Chinese or are they “Canadian.” In Canada, the answer should be a resounding “yes” but that may be is more easily said than practiced.
The Banana Boys. Photo: Joseph Michael Photography
The play is based on Terry Woo’s novel which has been adapted by Leon Aureus. It covers a dazzling number of subjects from the obvious concern with stereotyping immigrants and people of a “different colour” to love, loss, ambitions, drugs, alcohol, identity and a number of other issues.
The five actors who play an array of characters are Darrel Gamotin, Matthew Gin, Oliver Koomsatira, Simu Liu and Philip Nozuka. They are an amazing group of performers. While covering a frequently changing array of topics and people, they showed astounding versatility and talent. They are almost acrobatic in their physical agility and their performances are more memorable than the play.
The set consists of a large table with an opening in the middle. The action takes place mostly on and around the table, in the square opening with judicious use of the steps in the auditorium. Director Nina Lee Aquino maintains a pace and discipline as if this were an Olympic event. Well done.
The word complex may be complimentary but can also mean confusing and both meanings are applicable to the play. It has a beginning, a middle and an end somewhere but you would be hard put to find it. Some of the anxieties, torments and turmoil, be they cultural or personal of the young men, are illustrated quite well. But there is so much going on, so fast and in such a disarray that your interest starts fading and you are just as likely to look at your watch as to try and follow every nuance of the performance.
The play and the novel have achieved success because they deal with Asian Canadians, a subject largely ignored on the cultural stage. The idea of the Canadian mosaic, multiculturalism and the avoidance of the American melting-pot approach to immigrants in favour of an inclusive Canadian ideal are all commendable if not always achieved or achievable. They are certainly a great subject for the theatre to explore.
How many plays have you seen recently about different ethnic groups in Canada? Not many. Now there is a startup that has endless possibilities. Banana Boys and a handful of other plays that are already around are a damn good start.