Nathan Joe isn’t the type to be held down by glass ceilings.
Already in his young career, he’s accrued some hefty titles, including his performance poetry skills landing the National Slam Championship and his sharp writing skills earning him the Bruce Mason Playwriting Award.
But having his latest work Scenes From a Yellow Peril: Scenarios For An Assimilated Asian make its World Premiere during its current run with Auckland Theatre Company (until 3 July) has taken his belief in his own ability to a new level.
“I guess playwrights and theatre makers here in NZ are used to working at a small scale - independent, in smaller venues. We’re not often given the permission to think big and dream big with our work.
“The great thing about doing a show at the ASB Waterfront Theatre is you get to broaden the limitations of how you view your own work. That’s quite a pivotal, turning point in anyone’s career, to have that realisation.
“I can’t be sure I’ll be given another opportunity like this, so it’s important to really savour it.”
Both the masterful mind behind its creation and one of key performers, Joe has teamed up again with Award-winning director Jane Yonge to bring this work to life. In fact, he has collaborated with most of those involved in the production previously - giving extra sentiment to their achievement.
“None of us have made work at this scale before so for everyone in the core performance team, we’re quite new to a space like this. There’s a real moment of it dawning on us, when we’re on stage and it’s like ‘wow, this is really happening’
It feels like stepping onto the moon - one giant step for Asian creatives in Aotearoa and doing it together, it’s really beautiful.”
Scenes From a Yellow Peril presses your buttons - regardless of which side of this particular fence you sit on. With racism and privilege in New Zealand firmly in the crosshairs, this non-conventional form of theatre is unlike what theatregoers are used to in the country.
Joe describes it as “a provocation rather than a confrontation - and through that provocation we move into a more honest space.”
He explains “first and foremost, it’s for people like myself, people who are culturally inbetween, culturally displaced. If you want to get really specific - East Asians who have been raised in New Zealand, in a Western context where their identity, their citizenship and belonging is always contested and always in flux. That inbetweenness is something the play struggles with and wrestles with.
“Secondarily, it is for the Pakeha audience, who in their own way, understand some of these feelings but to give them a perspective shift.”
Scenes From A Yellow Peril. Photo; Andi Crown.
A sharp wit, Joe knows the content of his latest show will make some uncomfortable - even to the point of understanding how to process the humour.
“As the creatives behind it, we talk about it a lot - how do we give audiences permission to laugh - ’am I meant to laugh here?’, ‘am I allowed to laugh here?’
“None of the jokes in the play are ever at the expense of ourselves, we are never making a laughing stock of ourselves for your pleasure. We are making a parody or a satire of the world as it is, and we are laughing together at the absurdity of things and human behaviour.
“When I think of 90s or early 2000s Asian comedians who put on accents for Pakeha audiences to laugh at, this is very far removed from that. When it does simulate that, it’s very self-aware and is almost making fun of that, playing into the discomfort of it."
Nathan Joe in performance. Photo: Andi Crown.
Taking those conversations that are usually left behind closed doors with people you trust and putting them out on stage for a wider audience is challenging, but important in the eyes of Joe.
“How do we say the things we’ve always wanted to say or we’re all kind of thinking? The real world can be so overloaded with language and toxic content - what we’re doing on stage doesn’t even come close to what’s happening on the internet, but it’s in a space where we’re asking you to pay attention.
“That’s the big thing - theatre is a place where the audience comes in and for the time that they’re there, they’ve agreed to the contract of sitting there and engaging with an open heart and mind, which is a gift to us (as theatremakers) as well.
“In that transaction, something magical happens.
“We’re carving out a space where we allow this to happen in a larger than life sense, in a safe way as well.”
Director Jane Yonge in conversation with Nathan Joe. Photo: Julie Zhu.
Joe’s thirst for knowledge and building on his reputation as one of Aotearoa’s rising stars in the literary and theatre worlds knows no limitations.
He’s one of the mentees in Toipoto, The Big Idea’s pilot programme as part of the Creative Careers Service.
“It’s always good to have more resources and knowing that there are people out there with more lived experience with making a career as artists. If you don’t have role models to look up to, it doesn’t feel possible.
“Knowing that there are people who can make a living doing it, who can have a sustainable practice - it’s aspirational, you want to be able to do what they’re doing.
Nathan Joe. Photo: Julie Zhu.
“Without structures in place like Toipoto - and here with Auckland Theatre Company - you feel on your own. There are so many other Topioto members, artists and theatremakers in general who are doing what I’m doing on a day to day, so many of us trying to make it work. Being connected to that is a really powerful feeling.
“That’s the kaupapa of the work (Scenes From A Yellow Peril), to know that I’m not alone experiencing and feeling these things, we’re naming it and collectively joining hands to say ‘I see this, I see you and we can get through it’ - with anger, humour, rage, pathos, all those feelings to guide us.”