BANANA BOYS by Leon Aureus, adapted from the novel by Terry Woo, directed by Nina Aquino, with In-Surp Choi, Derek Kwan, Richard Lee, David Yee and Dale Yim. Presented by fu-GEN in association with Factory and Hastings Park Foundation at Factory Studio. Previews Friday (September 17), opens Saturday (September 18) and runs to October 3, Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinees Saturday-Sunday 2:30 pm. $10-$26, preview and Sunday pwyc ($10 minimum sugg). 416-504-9971. Rating: NNNNN
You've probably caught some of the plays by or about Asian-Canadian women staged in Toronto in the past several years, works like The Yoko Ono Project, Little Dragon, Mother Tongue, China Doll and Miss Orient(ed).
But what about the guys? Far fewer works have looked at the experiences of Canadian men from Asian cultures.
That's gonna change with the premiere of Banana Boys, Leon Aureus's adaptation of the Terry Woo novel about five Canadian-born Chinese men whose friendship is put to the test by their often negative self-images.
Feeling caught between the demands of their parents' culture and Western society's definitions of success, they seek escape in various ways.
The title, of course, comes from the yellow-outside, white-inside putdown phrase that is initially a self-fulfilling prophecy of failure for the characters.
The show marks the auspicious mainstage debut of fu-GEN, a company previously called Gum San Theatre, devoted to the development of professional Asian-Canadian theatre artists.
The group's already offered a number of public workshops, notably the Playwright's Kitchen Potluck Festival. In that one-off last spring, the audience saw the premiere of six short works by Asian-Canadian writers and the talents of a whole raft of mostly unknown stage actors.
"The new title stands for Future Generation," says artistic director and Banana Boys director Nina Aquino.
"But for us," she adds with a laugh, "it also means Fuckin' Geniuses."
Director/writer/dramaturge/performer Aquino had been working on a thesis on Asian-Canadian drama when Aureus approached her to become involved with the group. At first they and a few others met in someone's basement to read already produced plays.
"But then actor David Yee asked us to read something he'd written, so we started incorporating original works into our sessions.
"And when in 2002 we did an evening of established works called Love And Relasianships, theatre artist Jean Yoon said we had to start creating in our own voices, those of a new generation of Asian-Canadian theatre artists."
The company's mandate now is to develop and present scripts about the Asian-Canadian experience, as well as to prepare a new pool of artists for the stage. Over 40 people meet on a regular basis for readings and theatre training, and several other productions are already lined up.
The production of Banana Boys grew from the idea that fu-GEN should premiere with a script that speaks to - among others - an audience of 20-something Asian professionals.
"I couldn't totally identify with all five of Terry's characters," remembers Aureus, "but each touched on some aspect of my life. The book spoke my language. It connected immediately with people I know."
The five characters meet in university and begin a relationship that's defined in part by a tacit attitude that CBCs - Canadian-born Chinese - aren't as good as whites or even FOBs (fresh off the boat).
"An aspect of our culture suggests that CBCs are lazy and undisciplined," adds the writer, "while the rich FOBs drive great cars and live in great condos. Rick, one of the five characters, goes so far as to try to redefine himself as a FOB.
"It's a commentary on destroying who you really are, the danger of putting on airs. Banana Boys is a play about fragmentation."
"These five start as broken pieces trying to find some grounding," comments Aquino on the script, which reflects that theme in a structure that jumps back and forth in time and narrative. "One by one they do, and they're moving toward wholeness by the end of the story."
And what's it like for Aquino to handle a group of guys on what she acknowledges is an Asian-Canadian boy story?
She's fine, for she's worked with four of the actors, as well as Aureus, on earlier, smaller projects, including Filial, presented in SummerWorks 2003.
But Aureus has another take on the rehearsal dynamics.
"Sometimes I feel like there's a brotherhood in the company," he admits, "a brotherhood that has a headmistress.
"I guess you could see it as an Asian-Canadian version of The Facts Of Life."