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Alan Lao, Effie Nkrumah, Frank Mainoo, Ama and Chan, Urban Theatre Projects Alan Lao, Effie Nkrumah, Frank Mainoo, Ama and Chan, Urban Theatre Projects
photo Heidrun Löhr
THAT “REALITY TELEVISION” IS AN OXYMORON IS FAIRLY COMMON KNOWLEDGE. FROM SURVIVOR AND BIG BROTHER TO MASTERCHEF AND THE AMAZING RACE, THE “REALITY” OF THE GENRE HAS ALWAYS TAKEN A BACKSEAT TO THE “TELEVISION” OF IT. THE TRUISM THAT OBSERVATION ALTERS THE THING OBSERVED IS TRUE ENOUGH OF CINEMA VERITE AND NATURE DOCUMENTARY, LET ALONE OF A PROGRAM THAT HOLES UP 16 OF SOCIETY’S MORE VACUOUS SPECIMENS IN A FORTRESS OF ARCHITECTURAL MODERNISM AND PLIES THEM WITH ALCOHOL FOR THREE MONTHS. IT IS DIFFICULT TO THINK OF RICHARD HATCH AS A MODERN DAY ROBINSON CRUSOE WHEN JEFF PROBST KEEPS ROCKING UP AT CAMP LOOKING LIKE THE ACTIVITIES MANAGER FROM A NEARBY SPA RESORT. AND EVERYONE KNOWS BY NOW THAT BY THE TIME THE JUDGES TASTE ANYTHING ON MASTERCHEF THE DISHES HAVE BEEN COLD FOR A GOOD 45 MINUTES AND THAT THE CONTESTANTS THEMSELVES RECEIVE SUB-PAR CATERING.

At least within this country, however, the least realistic thing about reality television is its colour: these programs have an insidious tendency to be a starchy, unrepresentative White. (To its credit, MasterChef has been somewhat more colourful than other programs—Chinese-Australian Adam Liaw won the competition in 2010, Malaysia-born Poh Ling Yeow came second the year before that, and Greek-Australian George Colambaris is one of the three judges—but even its line-up tends towards the starchy.) One can’t but recall Lee Lewis’s 2007 Platform Paper on cross-racial casting: “I had grown accustomed to New York’s mixed-race casts and was astonished that the ethnic diversity that was so apparent on the streets was not replicated on Sydney’s stages,” Lewis writes. Let’s hope she didn’t tune in to The Block or My Kitchen Rules.

It should come as no surprise that Urban Theatre Projects’ Ama and Chan takes this sorry state of affairs as its starting point. As Caroline Wake writes in her introduction to RealTime’s online archive of pieces on the company and its work: “Time and time again, Urban Theatre Projects has explored who becomes marginalised, how and why…Through their many productions we have come to know many modes of resilience: modest contingent, defiant, temporary, permanent and sometimes triumphant, but rarely in the way we expect.” Certainly, that is the case here. Where one might expect an angry, even militant, approach, Ama and Chan’s critique is instead subtle and good-humoured, worn on the sleeve of the production only lightly, as though it could, like lint, be brushed away without a second thought.

Indeed, if the production’s strategy could be summed up in a word, it would perhaps be “charm.” Performers Effie Nkrumah and Alan Lao have created, in the titular characters, two intensely and immediately likable protagonists. Ghanaian-Australian Ama and her bumbling Chinese-Australian husband Chan meet the audience in the foyer of the Bankstown Arts Centre prior to the show in a hilarious meet-and-greet that might be better described as an accost-and-berate. (Chan gives the vegetarians a particularly hard time.) They spurn political correctness. (Ama asks the row of Africans in the audience to smile. When she fails to see their teeth in the darkness, she frowns: “Hang on! That’s just a row of empty chairs!”) To a large extent, the characters hew pretty closely to stereotype. Chan’s Chinese-Australian accent is straight out of the fish markets and Ama’s entire persona reminiscent of blaxploitation’s sassy supermamas. When the piece reveals its interest in reality television, however, this reliance on types is revealed to have a very particular purpose: we quickly realise that these same types fall outside television’s prescribed and limited definition of social reality.

Effie Nkrumah, Alan Lao, Ama and Chan, Urban Theatre Projects Effie Nkrumah, Alan Lao, Ama and Chan, Urban Theatre Projects
photo Heidrun Löhr
Drew Fairley’s production posits a unique solution to this problem: Ama and Chan take to the internet with a YouTube cooking show. (Within the context of the narrative, their reasons for doing so are less social than financial: the couple’s furniture has been lost by removalists on the day they are supposed to move into their new apartment. Chan hasn’t purchased insurance, one suspects characteristically.) Dedicated to “Ghanaian-Chinese fusion,” with the cuisines, like the character types themselves, given added depth and richness by their collision with one another, the couple’s show takes advantage of the digital sphere and its much-touted capacity for breaking down cultural barriers and opening up more inclusive and representative spaces.

A Catfish-esque montage of images from Google Maps, iPhone text messages and online airline booking sites opens the production, serving as its prologue and providing us with the characters’ back stories. The networked world also played an important role in the production’s marketing strategy, with audiences invited to befriend Ama and Chan on Facebook and follow the latter’s hilarious videoblog in the lead-up to the season.

With the Arab Spring still in full swing as this issue goes to press and with the importance, if not necessarily the centrality, of these same technologies to those struggles, the exploration of their capacity for creating new spaces here at home seems timely. Ama and Chan’s mode of resilience, too, is a digital one.


Urban Theatre Projects, Ama and Chan, director, writer Drew Fairley, devisors, performers, writers Effie Nkrumah, Alan Lao, dramaturg Alicia Talbot, musician, performer Reza Achman, Bankstown Arts Centre Theatre, Sydney, May 4-14

RealTime issue #103 June-July 2011 pg. 38

© Matthew Clayfield; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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