REVIEW: Yellow Rabbit Is Refreshingly Skeptical Of “Good” Asian Representation
Christine H. Tran reviews Silk Bath Collective’s Yellow Rabbit, presented by Soulpepper Theatre:
I’m not sure if I enjoyed Yellow Rabbit—and that is to the play’s credit. At this moment in pop culture, where the current ethos demands that Asian consumers rejoice that we are finally getting our scraps of (North) American “representation” pie, Yellow Rabbit is the cynical Asian’s anti-fantasy that is refreshingly hard to digest.
Written by playwrights Bessie Cheng, Aaron Jan, and Gloria Mok, Yellow Rabbit is an obstacle course for everyone involved. Set in a post-apocalyptic world that has been ravaged by ambiguous racial gang violence (and less ambiguous ecological destruction), two Chinese survivors redubbed “Woman” and “Man” (played with expert affectation by April Leung and En Lai Mah) compete for coveted spots in “Rich Man’s Hill”—the playworld’s last sanctuary city for Chinese survivors. Of course, instead of pylons or killer kids (but never fear for there’s at least one of those here!), the barriers of entry for this playground are simply the intersecting social conflicts and innumerable histories of colonial terror, rendered playfully and grimly on stage for dramatic consumption.
If the set-up winks to The Hunger Games, the script politely asks us to switch out arrows and bloodspot for coy trials of chopstick etiquette, furniture assembly, and the unerotics of heterosexual domesticity. In truth, Silk Bath Collective’s offering is violent and grim; much less Hunger Games and way more Battle Royale—and not just because of the shock collars. With only four performers, Yellow Rabbit impressively manages to capture a cast of characters that reject the respectability politics of “good” Asians in media. Within the text, as with our world, non-heteronormative and generally non-assimilated Asians need not apply to Rich Man’s Hill. As a queer woman, Leung’s Woman is thus in precarious territory. Nevertheless, her aspirational entry to Rich Man’s Hill hides a noble motive: to leave, and share the wealth among the un-chosen survivors beyond its walls. While Leung’s woman is just smart and endearing enough to triumph in both the modules and the audience’s heart (a “Chinese Jesus” as she is bitingly called by Man), the play makes clear she can only rise so far as the Man to whom she’s been saddled.
For much of the story, the burden lies with Leung to represent the brutal affects of this society’s demand that only “good” Asians be represented. Not every spectrum of Asian identity—sexual, gendered, economic, ethnic, etc.—is present in Yellow Rabbit. That Leung’s status as the sole speaking queer Asian woman trapped in so many social matrixes appears fresh, rather than sparse, is to Yellow Rabbit’s credit, however. It’s a scathing critique of the external world’s low bar for Asian representation.
By and large, the celebrated Asians on Hollywood silver screens are not a far cry from the “ideal” Asians of Rich Man’s Hill: affluent, traditionally clever, on the verge of heterosexual nuclear family-making, and above all assimilated (shock collars are optional). Luckily, assimilation is not the business of Yellow Rabbit. After all, one of this play’s first English lines involves the spiteful utterance of “colonizer.” A complex history of overlapping colonization looms over the characters like the play’s projected images on its walls and characters (courtesy of set, costume and props designer Jackie Chau).
Yellow Rabbit has almost no choice but to heed to the power of screens over the pop culture embodiment of Asian-ness. Its screens are the discrete secondary characters of this speculative drama. The staging of striking barriers—both stone and silk—trap Man and Woman (and the audience) in sets made of diegetic video projection and clips. As characters speak, translated subtitles move above them and command the eye in a dance between movement, character, and context. For a setting much talked about but ultimately never seen by Man and Woman, Rich Man’s Hill is figuratively and literally cinematic. The effect is a prettily executed and affective nod to the ways in which the tyranny of the moving image has eaten the diasporic imagination into executive logics of thought.
Despite its strengths, Yellow Rabbit might have dwelled a little longer upon Indigenous history of its own space. Even Asian-led plays such as Yellow Rabbit are made possible by the continued occupation of Turtle Island. For a text overtly concerned with the matrixes of colliding occupations as they project and invade themselves into Asians bodies, this aversion seems like a surprisingly shallow spot in an otherwise complex antidote to compulsory optimism.
From Crazy Rich Asians to John Cho’s Searching and Netflix’s To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before, our screen culture is in the throes of (half-lovingly) telling diasporic Asians how “our” stories are finally being brought from the cultural background to the foreground. If we could build a home inside this filmography alone, we might blissfully forget that Asian countries (specifically of the non-East Asian variety) were ever subjects of European colonization. It sometimes feels as though Hollywood has simply projected the most hegemonically unthreatening East Asian figures it could find onto white stages (and stories) via post-production effects, like so many of the vivid but artificial cartoon projections that come to form Man and Woman’s ruminations on Rich Man’s Hill. Not unlike the surrounding pop culture, Yellow Rabbit offers little representation for South Asian or Southeast Asian theatregoers—but with its complex and unideal Asian-Americans, the play at least offers a resonance to those linked, yet uniquely oppressed, histories. Of course, it is rather unfair to ask Silk Bath Collective to account for every single Pan-Asian subjectivity in a single four-actor play. Instead, Yellow Rabbit offers a complex vocabulary for audiences to begin prying open the invisible shock collars around their own necks.
Christine H. Tran is a second-generation Vietnamese settler, writer, and scholar. She holds a BA from the University of Toronto Scarborough and a SSHRC-funded MA in English from York University. Her relationship to technology—a fickle, passionate, and endless talk—continues to inform how she writes about race and affect in the virtual economy. Her writing often explores the shared histories of literature, internet culture, video games, and how these texts reproduce folklore of technological meritocracy. Most recently, Christine has become interested in Let’s Plays and game streaming as mediums of professional performance and self-writing. Consequently, she is current applying for her PhD.