Director Nina Lee Aquino Chats About Banana Boys

What exactly is a Banana Boy (or girl)? As an Asian-Canadian myself it was an all too identifiable term  — you know, yellow on the outside and white on the inside. And this is why the play Banana Boys has recently caught my attention. Written by Leon Aureus (adapted from the Novel by Terry Woo) and directed by Nina Lee Aquino, Banana Boys will be on stage November 3 to November 22, 2015 at the Factory Theatre.

So back to the question, What exactly is a Banana Boy? On this stage we are introduced to a group of Asian-Canadian men in their twenties, and this description turns into a peculiar predicament. This is a powerful new production that examines the deep challenges of being torn between cultures and identities. Drawn together by the death of their friend and unofficial leader, five young Asian-Canadian men must confront unrealized potential, devastating loss, and time travel…all while trying not to punch too many white boys in the face. This wickedly funny play, adapted from the celebrated book, is a call to everyone who has felt out of place in the world.

bboy_coverThe cast includes Darrel Gamotin, as Sheldon Kwan (Waiting for Godot, Modern Times Theatre); Matthew Gin, as Mike Chao, a new graduate of the joint acting conservatory program at Sheridan College and U of T making his professional debut; Oliver Koomsatira, as Dave Lowe, (Ching Chong Chinaman, fu-GEN); Simu Liu, as Rick Wong (Blood and Water, OMNI tv); and Philip Nozuka, as Luke Yeung, (Durango, fu-GEN). 

Nina Lee Aquino is an award-winning director and current Artistic Director of Factory. I checked in with her not just to find out more about this play but the current situation for our home-town Asian talents. After all, we’ve all noticed the lack of Asian actors on stage and screen here in North America.

Banana Boys made its mainstage debut in 2004. What was the reaction then from the audiences then that have stated with you?

Their sense of awe and shock. I love seeing how audiences always come in with one set of expectations about the show and then after, leaving completely having turned those expectations upside down.  For the most part, audiences, usually think Banana Boys is going to be some sort of a male version of The Joy Luck – nice and gentle and linear and ernest. But it’s completely the opposite.

What has changed in the play now?

The playwright was able to go back to the script and do a couple of updates and tweaks. He’s seen the show a lot of times and has been taking notes so that one day, like right now, if ever the show were to be produced again, he would have the chance to makes some changes (small and subtle as they are). That’s why it’s really important to remount Canadian works. It allows for both the playwright and the play itself to grow.

For Asian actors in Canada, what’s the biggest challenge they face?

Lack of opportunity which then leads to lack of practice and experience. But Asian actors don’t get hired because they lack the experience. So, it’s a pretty vicious cycle. It will only stop when directors and Artistic Directors start taking risks AND when our actors become even more rigorous with their own craft. Those two go hand in hand.

What about you as a director?

Being a director is even harder because 1. there is only a handful of theatre conservatory programs that have directing training; and 2. unlike being an actor, you don’t get opportunities to “audition” as a director. You just gotta do it. You do it and you let people see your work. And you keep doing it until somebody notices.

So being an Asian director (one of what? 3 or 4 in the country) the pressure to kick ass and represent is always in my mind. I have to prove myself like 200% more than a regular one. I need to stand out all the time. The work I do needs to be above extraordinary in order to, not only get noticed, but to be remembered. There is almost no room for failure, no room for mistakes. The scrutiny is more intense. And that is the hard part. Not being allowed to make beautiful failures. Which is so crucial to any artist. I don’t want to fall into the trap of gunning for perfection all the time. Because that’s not the point all the time. I need room to grow and find my way and it’s not always gong to be easy and clean.

Asian stereotypes in films are still there? What makes you cringe?

Yes.

When I see Asian characters portrayed as mentally challenged nerds or dorks.

When I see Asian characters portrayed as low status and not given a chance to have the power to drive the story.

I don’t mind Asian characters supporting a story but when they are just there for display purposes only, the I go a bit mental.

Are we progressing? Mainstream entertainment is giving Asian actors a nod right? Are we getting there with shows like Fresh of the Boat in the US and the highly anticipated film adaptation of the book Crazy Rich Asians?

Yes but here is still a lot, a LOT of work that needs to be done. We are so not there yet. Having one or two Asian actors in a season is not progress. It’s tokenism. We need to start imagining our stages in full colour.

Tell us about some of the Asian-Canadian actors and who we should be keeping an eye on?

All the boys in the current cast of Banana Boys. Because not only are they all talented naturally but their work ethic is sold as a rock; they are highly rigorous with the work and they never settle for second best. They are very demanding of themselves and of each other. Open and willing to play and very imaginative bunch — it’s been a hoot working with them. I’m always inspired by their energy (it’s contagious) and they make it seem like anything is possible on stage.

What tips do you have for aspiring Asian actors in this city?

If being in theatre is your life calling – then do it. It is possible to have a viable profession as an Asian Canadian artist now – there are so may of us that have proven that. But we need more people who are really hungry to do this and who love theatre more than anything in the world. So if you feel that you’re one of those people, then do it and be relentless in the pursuit and in yourself as an artist. Go train in theatre. Go watch all kinds of theatre shows. Go create something, put something out there for people to see. Just do it.

For more information visit www.factorytheatre.ca 

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Sonya is the Co-Founder and Managing Editor of AZNmodern.com. She is also a well-established contributing lifestyle writer to other sites and magazines sharing her passion for arts & culture, fashion, beauty, travel and food. Sonya is based in Toronto, Canada. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram @theculturepearl

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