Review by Katrina Chan
Bang Bang Bang! If you are looking for a relatable play about the Chinese Australian story, find no more. A Practical Guide To Self Defence is a must-see multimedia action-packed two-hander comedy that discusses everyday racism and identity from a vulnerable place. Inspired by personal life, Australian-Chinese playwright, Hung-Yen Yang, tells a complex story about a soon-to-be-father, ‘Older Yen’ sharing his secret “practical guide” with his younger self, ‘Young Yen’/alter ego, as if he was his newborn baby. Through his presentation slideshow, animes and martial arts, he revisited his childhood memories - “I practice what I preach; preach you with the only way I know how!”
Directed by Dom Mercer, assisted by Brooke Lee, this part play, part instructional guide uncovered Yen’s traumas with childhood bullies, and explored how martial arts helped him survive in ‘80s Australia. Starring Alan Zhu (STC’s Death of a Salesman) and Edric Hong (Bowie Productions and Chippen St Theatre’s Love Addict), this modern and funny work showcased the shared living experience for 2nd generation Chinese Australian who grew up struggling to balance traditional family teaching and practicality in the real world. With Yen’s creative storytelling skills, he also explored masculinity, language and the legacies of colonisation.
A charismatic and argumentative pair. Alan, who played Younger Yen charmed the show with wit and a great sense of humour. Alan’s child-like movements were playful and cheeky at the start but turn jagged with the emotional pain of being disciplined by his strict father and rude mother. Alan showed how lonely and restless a young Chinese Australian feels when facing racism, and searching for identity. Other than young Yen, he played various characters with distinct physicality and colours, like a chameleon.
Edric was convincing in portraying the Father/ Older Yen’s role. Much authenticity came from his accent work in Cantonese and the stillness in Tai Chi amongst other Martial Arts, rather than putting a vague impression of the language and culture. Edric’s characters change abruptly: one-minute Edric was training Younger Yen into a fighting machine, the next Edric was playing the materialist Mother who had a high-pitched voice and lady-like posture, and then an immature violent bully, and so on. Both actors were captivating to watch, especially when they started sharing roles in the middle of the play. Whoever had the projector remote control would now become the Father; whoever wore orange sunglasses would switch to the Mother. Their performance was a lot of fun and they succeed in playing the same characters with similar physicality and tone.
This creative team was incredible. Kesley Lee’s production and set design resembled a martial arts kwoon with swords on stage left, a silver bench, red and grey Jujutsu Dojo matting in the middle, a wooden clothing rack and a basket of costumes on stage right. Three Shoji doors were upstage, consisting of wooden frames covered with sheets of translucent paper, where Older Yen projected his presentation video. Morgan Moroney’s video design engaged audiences with digital animation, retro 80s computer screen images, arcade pixel art, and Yen’s GIF drawings from his blog post. A striking moment was when four massive white banners dropped vertically on each side, signed with Chinese calligraphy - “自衛實用指南” meaning “A Practical Guide for Self Defense”, drawing the eye upwards, reinforcing height in the theatre space.
Zac Saric’s music and sound design accompanied Yens all the way, from famous Kung Fu Fighting by Carl Douglas to rock music to traditional Chinese instruments, for example, guzheng, dizi, pipa, guqin, and gongs, giving an added layer of West meet East. The meditation water sound at the beginning reminded me of Bruce Lee’s famous quote - “Empty your mind. Be formless, shapeless, like water. You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.”, which introduced Yen’s central topic - “how to defeat the beast within?”
Without fight choreographer, Andy Trieu, this play would not have succeeded. Both actors learned the forms and trained for a short period. Paired with Morgan’s light design, they put on very realistic battles, even when most of the fighting scenes only had imaginary opponents. In another appalling moment, Older Yen executed the frozen Force Chokes, with a white spotlight in the middle. Of course, the sword battle fight at the end is not to be missed.
Finally, what makes this play fascinating and appalling is that Yen discussed race and family issues without lecturing the audience. Rather, by using great humour to vulnerably share his own experience growing up in the 70s and 80s in Australia. He invited us to his journey. Although racism is not as explicit as in the old days, like “Ching Chong China Man”, occasionally, much like the script, you would still hear “You should go back to China Nin” today. Chinese Australians in 2022, are still facing racism, dealing with self-identity, and stuck between embracing Chinese culture and Western culture.
In another aspect, what Yen conveyed so unnervingly was the teaching of filial piety. In most Chinese families, children are expected to respect, listen and obey parents and elders, even when they might be wrong sometimes. Much of the interaction between parents and children was true to Chinese culture, making this play relatable and unforgettable. “Why start a fight?” the Mother asked. “You need to learn practical self defence”, “fall with grace with a minimum of fuss” or “run away,” the Father said but how much are the teachings practical in real-life situations? For example, when facing racism and bullies, do I fight or not? If I take it into my own hands, will it solve anything, or will that lead to other consequences? “Don’t I have the right to defend myself?” Young Yen asked. This is an important and authentic play which takes us inside the head, and life, of a trapped and confused Chinese Australian, longing for connection.
Image Credit: Noni Carroll