Thursday, June 30, 2022, 7:30 p.m., Wharf 1 Theater Walsh Bay
Acclaimed playwright Michelle Law uses the “I wish I was you” body-swapping genre to raise awareness about the stigma people of color face every day in her new play TOP COAT. Presented with appropriate representation, both on and off stage, this new work uses comedy to convey important messages to a society that still struggles to provide adequate representation of the diversity of the population that fuels racism and doubles. current standards.
The TOP COAT in the title refers to the nail salon where the protagonists Winnie (Kimie Tsukakoshi) and Asami (Arisa Yura) work. While Asami, a newer migrant still learning the nuances of Australian slang, just tries to keep her customers and her invisible boss happy, Winnie is fed up with arrogant racist white customers who assume that because she doesn’t don’t look like they can be rude, insulting and aggressive because they are just service workers with no voice in society. In a world where it is unfortunately still generally accepted that women like Winnie will never be more than employees of other people’s companies, the young Asian woman has higher ambitions and a desire to have an influence on the way which she, and others like her, are treated by the authorized white customers who rely on their skills and services to maintain their polished image. After closing one night, Kate (Amber McMahon), an obnoxious high-powered executive of the Multicultural Broadcasting Corporation who occupies the office buildings above, asks Winnie to stay to deal with a manicure emergency, but during the Kate’s unbearable moans about her privileged life, casually the wish for the life of the other is mysteriously granted, allowing for an experience of “walking a mile in another person’s shoes” and the resulting understanding.
Staged in the Wharf 1 black box theater space, designer James Lew created four light trucks, each with a color theme, to represent the nail salon and storeroom and office and dining room of the television company. Set elements alternate with choreographed transitions and small changes add flexibility to simpler steps. Lew’s costume design complements the sets by sticking to solid colors for the main characters while the supporting roles of fellow Kate Yuko (Arisa Yura), Marcus (Matty Mills) and Barry (John Batchelor) and his sleazy director boyfriend Jeremy (also John Batchelor) keep it simple with slight variations to differentiate the multiple characters depicted. The transitions are covered in lighting by Kate Baldwin which takes on a disco style of colored lights accompanied by compositions and sound design by Michael Toisuta.
For TOP COAT, the appointment of Courtney Stewart as a director with lived experience as an Asian Australian ensures that Winnie and Asami are portrayed with honesty and sensitivity, refraining from turning them into caricatures or relying on stereotypes that non-People of Color (POC) admins might be more tempted to do. It’s refreshing to see an Asian woman both being the central character and portraying her with respect and not being positioned to be the figure in the comedy. With the focus of the work being the importance of Winnie having a voice and the ability to aspire for more in a world where the white population treats people of color with derogatory prejudices, the absurd and grotesque characters are Kate, Barry and Jeremy. .
Kimie Tsukakoshi delivers a powerful performance as a young woman desperate for her voice to be heard and her existence to be respected. She captures the essence of the new generation less willing to put up with abuse while her monologue about the realities of life as an Asian woman in a world of prejudice is compelling in its truth and I hope non-POC audiences will understand that Law’s writing and Tsukakoshi’s dramatization of these truths are not exaggerations but grounded in reality and lived experiences.
As Kate, Amber McMahon balances presenting a caricature of the obnoxious legal white women who treat the POC in the service industries like second-class citizens while ensuring there is always an honesty in the expression so that it remains recognizable, and the public cannot dismiss the performance as pure fiction. McMahon infuses his comically brilliant physique into his Kate expression to express so much with just a glance or a sneer. She also assures that while Kate feels like she can relate to Winnie’s situation in terms of her own feminist struggle against the corporate ‘glass ceiling’, she does exhibit traits that show that her solution is to replicate patriarchy for the way forward rather than bring about real change in how women’s abilities are recognized in the workplace.
As Asami, Winnie’s colleague, Arisa Yura balances an element of the stereotype of a new migrant still learning the language and living with the fear of losing her income with the need to make sure she doesn’t drift into caricature. . As Kate’s colleagues, Japanese Yuko and Australian native Marcus, Arisa Yura and Matty Mills allow their characters to move on from people who have been deprived of their “voice”, too scared to speak up for fear of the effects on their careers, to those who decide they’ve had enough of Kate and Barry’s bulldozing approach to managing the scheduling of programs with Virtue signage without any real commitment to adequate representation of the customers the broadcaster is supposed to support. As Jeremy, Kate’s boyfriend and Barry, Kate’s boss, John Batchelor weaves his way easily between the multiple characters to ensure that they are all seen as arrogant men who present the barrier against the feminist attitudes of Kate.
For those who can personally identify with Winnie, Asami, Yuko or Marcus in non-white terms, TOP COAT is relatable and recognizable and a refreshing piece that finally shares an understanding of the challenges they face. For those who traditionally identify more with Kate, Barry or Jeremy, I hope they can, like Kate, put themselves in Winnie’s shoes and reconsider their behavior both towards others and how they can contribute to change by denouncing the bad behavior of others. Hopefully, the underlying message of ensuring stories about POC are allowed to be told by POC will also be heard. This work is proof that engaging a creative team that understands the work from a place of personal experience ensures a more honest and sensitive expression that properly respects the stories being told.