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Exploring identity politics with theatre

Monday 18th April 2016

Auckland-based actor Alice Canton is coming face-to-face with her Chinese and Pakeha identity in a new show at The Basement Theatre.

Photo: Supplied

White/Other sees Canton exploring both sides of her bi-cultural identity, which she says at times feel alien and uncomfortable.

The 29-year-old was born on the West Coast to a Malaysian Chinese mother and Kiwi father. She says the community she grew up in was relatively conservative and discrimination was something that became part and parcel of her everyday life.

Canton feels that undercurrents of anti-Asian sentiment are still around, even with New Zealand’s shift towards fostering diversity. She points to the list of Chinese names that came out in the media last year in relation to the Auckland housing crisis.

“Part of that story resonates with what we were seeing in the newspapers 120 years ago,” she says, making reference to New Zealand’s introduction of a Chinese Poll Tax and gender bans to deter further arrivals on our shores.

Dealing with some of these issues and exploring her identity was challenging for the actor and she says she previously resisted telling a story of this nature.

“I don’t identify as ‘white’ and when I visited Malaysia for the first time [where my mother’s family are from], I felt completely disconnected. But once I acknowledged and accepted that it was all part of my own story it was easy, because I have a lifetime of experience and anecdotes that feed the work.”

Part of the drive behind the project is Canton’s desire to expand on the range of stories that have gone before her. She says she struggled to find similar voices to connect with when she was growing up and instead looked to the likes of Māori and Pasifika stories and theatre for inspiration.

“As I get older, I realise that I have a visibility and a platform as a performer and with that privilege comes great responsibility,” she says of being a role model for emerging bicultural or multicultural performers.

Importantly, she emphasises that as a whole New Zealanders need to free themselves from expectations of ‘cultural’ narratives that enter the arts and culture sphere.

“The act of having diverse voices can be enough and we shouldn’t project that these voices must tell prescribed stories about our cultural or migrant experience, or even our experiences of otherness.”

White/Other is on at The Basement theatre until 21 April.

LISTEN: RNZ’s Sonia Sly speaks with Alice Canton:

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