by Drew Rowsome- Production photos by Joseph Michael
Five 20-something friends get together for drinks and talk, and perform vaudeville sketches, about sex, love, careers, addiction and ambitions. And race. Because they are Banana Boys - yellow on the outside, white on the inside - race is a frequent obsession.
Eleven years ago, when Banana Boys first appeared, the terms "banana boy" and "FOB" ("fresh off the boat") were insulting slang, known only to those who fling racial slurs and those who are their targets. Somehow both slurs - like "oreo" and "faggot" - have softened and eased into the mainstream. This doesn't make them less offensive or derogatory, just less shocking.
Early on in Banana Boys, the boys recite a litany of stereotypes about Asian men. Eleven years ago, the acknowledgement may have been shocking, but again most of those clichés have been disproven. Or have they? An Asian-Canadian might have a very different perception that contradicts my privilege. The small dick jokes in Banana Boys still sting, and it is still tragically a novelty to see a cast that is not predominantly white. When hunky Simu Liu takes off his shirt to flaunt his sculpted pecs and abs, it is a bitter reminder of how rarely men of Asian descent are sexualized in a way that empowers rather than emasculating them.
And when the exceptionally handsome and versatile Oliver Koomsatira, who plays the racially angry boy, brings out a Venn diagram showing just how desexualized men of Asian descent are: it is a funny moment that is horrifying in its truth. Matthew Gin's battles with his mother, he is the "number one son" and slated for one of four professions (he chooses "doctor") none of which are being the writer he aches to be, are presented as an Asian stereotype, but could just as easily be any ethnicity. And Darrel Gamotin's artfully played comedic and tragic saga of finding and losing love, could be played by any race - which just may be the point.
This version of Banana Boys is part of Factory Theatre's "Naked Season." What that means is that plays, all Canadian classics, are stripped down to their basic elements and are presented without elaborate sets, lighting or costumes, the better to focus on the texts and themes. For Banana Boys this has advantages and disadvantages. Director Nina Lee Aquino choreographs a maelstrom of movement around a deceptively simple raised platform, and turns cellphones into a multitude of props and effects. The cellphones are particularly ingenious, exploding and exploiting yet another stereotype while commenting on the fracturedness of the mens' relationships
However the enforced simplicity sucks the energy out of some of the comedic sketches. A little razz-a-ma-tazz and colour would have gone a long way towards making some hoary jokes into vaudevillian delights. But the starkness allows the cast to shine. They are all remarkable, changing characters, becoming sound effects, battling in brutally realistic fights, bounding into the audience and across the large stage. Philip Nozuka is particularly kinetic and chameleon-esque, but the entire cast shines as an ensemble while positively exploding when given the opportunity to sink their teeth into an emotional moment. One can sense the joy of finally being able to strut one's talent instead of being relegated to sidekick status.
The gay twist comes out of nowhere and feels like an afterthought, which is odd - the rest of the plot elements and symbols all slide into place like clockwork. The woman beside me uttered a little grunt of actual physical satisfaction each time an errant metaphor locked into the whole, but there is still a disparity between the storyline and the sketches, and that dampens the exuberance. As a political piece, Banana Boys does its job in an entertaining fashion. As an entertainment, the Banana Boys could afford to be more lacerating and vicious. As a showcase for five actors, it is a spectacular success.
Banana Boys continues until Sun, Nov 22 at Factory Theatre, 125 Bathurst St. factorytheatre.ca