At a time when debates around cultural identity and appropriation seem to be ever-present in our collective consciousness, choreographers Andrew Tay and Stephen Thompson examine the aesthetics of “Asian-ness” and the exoticizing and othering of racialized bodies in western culture in their new ninety-minute interdisciplinary performance, Make Banana Cry. Presented in Montréal at the MAI (Montréal, arts interculturels) and created in collaboration with performers Dana Michel, Ellen Furey, Simon Portigal and Hanako Hoshimi-Caines, and artistic collaborators Dominique Pétrin (visual artist), Jean Jauvin (lighting design), and Coman Poon (production, artistic consultant), this experimental work opens an important dialogue around the ubiquity of everyday racism in western culture and the possibility of finding other ways to perform identity and be together.
I’m handed a pair of pink perfumed bags and asked to put them over my boots before entering the gallery space at the MAI. Their sweet smell lingers in the air as the audience files into the room and take seats along three sides. The space is immaculately thought out: there’s stack of oversized instant Cup Noodles in one corner, a vase protected in a case of glass in another and a table covered in exotic “curios” in the back. I realize that the intricate pattern making a runway down the middle of the space is a series of interlocking swastikas, that ancient symbol of eternity and well-being from the East that became a symbol of hate in the West. Pétrin’s set is a strange but visually stunning assortment of relics that point to a history of colonialization and appropriation and of a western fascination with eastern culture.
Tay, Thompson, Michel, Furey, Portigal and Hoshimi-Caines walk out in single file, each bundled in multiple layers of clothing covering every inch of skin, hiding any outward identity markers. One by one, they make their way down the runway, walking at a slow, even pace. Around and around they go on this strange circuit of display. I watch them, waiting, my curiosity peeked. I catch myself trying to decipher who’s who, and then wonder why it’s important. Over the speakers, classical music and Asian pop songs fade in and out, creating a strange soundscape for this uneventful procession.
Slowly, and subtly, their walks begin to transform. Feet turn out and begin to skip; snaky hips slither from side to side. Comical walks become a series of mimed gestures, a barrage of pantomime playing on western and Asian stereotypes: bowing, riding scooters or pushing a shopping cart; doing aerobics, serving tea or begging for change. Slowly, the performers begin to strip off their layers, revealing their identities. They choose accessories and new costumes from the table in the far corner, making their gestures more ridiculous. A zombie lumbers down the runway with a fly swatter in hand. A cowboy lassos a plush emoji poop toy and makes it gallop along behind him. A man practising his golf swing suddenly finds himself self-flagellating with the club. We hear Madame Liang (from the film Flower Drum Song) joyfully exclaim: “I am happy to be Chinese and American!” as Tay and Thompson – both of Asian-Canadian heritage – strut down the runway, arm in arm. We laugh. They walk on. A performer “makes it rain” with a stack of fake dollar bills.
Time passes. The procession continues. For over an hour, Tay, Thompson, Michel, Furey, Portigal and Hoshimi-Caines cycle through their repetitive pattern of clichés. Some moments are funny. Some moments are more serious. Some moments are boring. But maybe that’s the point of Make Banana Cry: realizing that performing identity for the gaze of a dominant society is a tedious, never-ending process.
Against this backdrop of mimed clichés and stereotypes, I cringe at the lyrics of classic pop songs like One Night in Bangkok and China Girl. But worse, I cringe at my own feeling of nostalgia when I hear these songs. I’m struck by how much the “Asian fantasy” is a part of my own western identity as I resist the urge to sing along with Mitsou as she belts out Les Chinois. Make Banana Cry reminds us that we are both products and producers of the society we live in, carriers and transmitters of cultural identities. And that unlike the stereotypes we are bombarded with every day, contemporary identities are never fixed, never frozen and never one-dimensional.
Just as the strange procession finally reaches a climax, and the performers finally come together to form a fantastical Chinese dragon that swoops around the space, the action grinds to a sudden halt. Tay, Michel and Furey strip naked and sit, shivering, raw, exposed and objectified before us like strange statues. Thompson, Portigal and Hoshimi-Caines leave them offerings before exiting; we watch in silence as they melt slowly into the floor. The crowd’s discomfort is palpable and the message is strong: we are confronted with the sheer exhaustion that comes from a lifetime of carrying the weight of fetishization.
Sadly, the show didn’t end with this powerful image. We were too quickly whisked away into another room: a makeshift nightclub of sorts filled with smoke machines and laser lights, where the performers let loose to K-pop and EDM in a confused dance of lyrical-slash-contemporary-slash-twerking infused improvisation that lasted somewhere between too long and not long enough. Perhaps the idea was that the audience would join in, but the performers eventually left the space one by one, leaving us waiting in the dark with a somewhat underdeveloped and anticlimactic ending to an otherwise strong and honest performance.
Putting stereotypes onstage to tackle stereotypes can be a tricky game. The very structures and attitudes being questioned might be reproduced or and reinforced if one isn’t careful. With Make Banana Cry, Tay, Thompson and their team of collaborators tread carefully and put together an entertaining yet thought provoking-evening. It’s the kind of show that takes time to unpack and understand, and asks a great deal of self-awareness both on the part of the performers and the spectators. We need more of these kinds of performances as we aim to move away from stereotypes to create art that embodies the complexity of defining and claiming identity in a multicultural contemporary western society.