Written by Ming Ho and directed by David Jiang, Citizens of Nowhere? makes a powerful statement on contemporary racial issues whilst disguising itself as a fly-on-the-wall domestic comedy. The play came to the Nottingham Lakeside Arts for one night only on the eve of Chinese New Year as part of the Chinese Arts Now Festival, and features an all-Chinese cast. Based around a casual conversation of a Chinese family, this play highlights contemporary subversive attitudes surrounding ethnicity and draws on the writer’s own experience of coming from an ethnically Chinese family living in Britain.
“The unusual experience of a deconstructed setting led to a deeply personal experience for the audience”
After a series of performances in London’s iconic Chinese restaurant Duddell’s, the 45-minute experiential play landed in the Gallery Café of the Nottingham Lakeside Arts centre. The actors were situated at a table in the café, while the audience were dispersed around them and listened through headphones to the Scottish-Chinese family bicker about an upcoming wedding.
The unusual experience of a deconstructed setting led to a deeply personal experience for the audience. They witnessed as the familial disagreement over the wedding quickly escalated, and the family began to address the global issues of lingering attitudes about immigration and race, and the personal questions of home and origins. Among the points of contention were the contrasting connotations of immigrant and expat, and the expectations that are placed on non-white citizens living abroad to take a certain stereotypical path, based purely on ethnicity. In this case, the children lament their peers’ expectations that they will run a Chinese restaurant, while their mother built an empire and found her identity in that very business.
“National and international notions of home highlight the changing social attitudes faced by immigrant families”
As the family continued to discuss their personal experiences, the play portrayed the universal experience of living as a multi-national citizen in modern Britain; such issues that shouldn’t be relevant in the modern age, but still resonate with anyone living away from their ‘home’ country. In the play, the matriarch of the family wishes to escape Edinburgh to return to her native Hong Kong, while in contrast her children wish to leave their current residences in London to return to their childhood home, Edinburgh. These national and international notions of home highlight the changing social attitudes faced by immigrant families, and the conflict of generational difference.
“Racial tensions still lie beneath the surface, and can be evidenced in any family discussion”
The performance proved to be highly topical in our contemporary political climate, and the conversation between this family could have been overheard at any café in England. With Brexit looming, the issues raised are becoming increasingly relevant and can’t be ignored. As the UK prepares to leave the EU, immigrant citizens and those with foreign heritage are inevitably questioning their notions of home, and how this relates to residence and ethnicity.
Many people would like to believe that Britain has left racial issues in the past, but the topicality of the play is brought home by the ambiguity of the title. Citizens of Nowhere? invokes Theresa May’s 2016 speech for a Conservative Party conference, in which she stated ‘If you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of nowhere — you don’t understand what citizenship means’. The implications of this resonate today with an imminent Brexit, and the regressive statement undermines the national image of Britain as an inclusive, multicultural society that it often prides itself on being. Such a subversively ambiguous statement from the Prime Minister emphasises that racial tensions still lie beneath the surface, and can be evidenced in any family discussion.
“The short 45-minute performance visibly left the audience wanting more”
The impact of this play lies in the total naturalisation of setting: the informal theatre forced the audience to occupy a role of spectator on a snapshot of reality. The topical issues settle into the subconscious psyche of the audience, and leaves them questioning the dominant ideologies that structure contemporary society. The short 45-minute performance visibly left the audience wanting more, and the actors moved freely through the space to allow the messages to transcend the setting, forcing the audience to question xenophobic discourse, racial misconceptions and stereotypes. The play marks just one of Nottingham Lakeside Arts’ events in celebration of Chinese New Year which continue throughout the week, and the engaging and thought-provoking Citizens of Nowhere? has set the standard high.
Featured Image courtesy of Nottingham Lakeside Arts Official Facebook Page.