Here and Queer: Asian Kiwi playwright Nathan Joe

Nathan Joe identifies as a Generation 2.5, or even 3.0, Chinese Kiwi. From Christchurch, this queer creative is a writer, director, producer, and dramaturge. He speaks with Asia Media Centre to celebrate New Zealand Pride month. 

"When I was writing explicitly ‘non-Asian’ characters [in his earlier work], you could sense the absence", says Joe / Photo: Supplied

“It’s easiest to say I’m a writer, but theatre-maker is more correct,” says Nathan Joe, who does everything from playwrighting to performance poetry and is based between Auckland and Christchurch. “I spent my early 20s overtly trying not to make Asian stories, but you can’t run away from your personal lived experiences. The more you run away, the more it seeps in.” 

As a queer Asian artist living in New Zealand, Joe now incorporates these aspects into most creative projects he undertakes, whether they be a play like 2021’s Yang/Young//杨 (which he directed), or a line-up of poets he curated for Dirty Passports, which debuted in 2021 and was set to return  for Auckland Pride but unfortunately cancelled due to pandemic restrictions. 

Joe on stage himself | Photo: Supplied

Joe has a major show in the works for 2022, too. Scenes from a Yellow Peril, which will be performed at Auckland Theatre Company’s ASB Waterfront Theatre, is a play that utilises performance poetry and an ensemble cast to explore East Asian identity in New Zealand “in quite an explicit way”, he says.

“When I was writing explicitly ‘non-Asian’ characters [in his earlier work], you could sense the absence. People can’t separate the writer from the work, and I was spending a lot of artistic energy avoiding writing about them. Unless your existence of being queer or a POC (person of colour) has gone unscathed, your identity is your axis. I’m a queer Asian… I was running out of detached stories.” 

With Joe’s recent work more accurately bringing in his lived experience, he has the freedom to explore other issues within the broad umbrella of “identity”. These include anger, rage, grief, familial expectations, toxic workplaces,friends, and racial anxiety. 

Joe in rehearsals / Photo: Supplied

“At the moment a lot of my work, at a pragmatic level I suppose, is just to expose difference [to the audience],” Joe says. “More Asian voices has an evolving effect. Letting people see [themselves] somewhat reflected as a point of reference is valuable. So is seeing what’s not like you.” 

Joe understands how Asian superheroes (e.g. Shang-Chi ) mean a lot to Asian kids, and while that genre isn’t his thing, he has his own Asian stories that inspire him. “Alice Canton’s work OTHER [chinese] – which has been performed in different cities around New Zealand since 2017 – is a seminal piece of theatre showing what people can do,” he says. 

The pandemic has been unfairly cruel on the arts community globally, and while New Zealand has had short reprieves in the past two years, Kiwi creatives have suffered immensely – especially in Auckland. “On a personal level I’m holding out well, but 80-90 percent of my live plays, readings, poetry… they’ve been cancelled or indefinitely postponed. Larger festivals are all cancelled. Luckily, the Ministry for Culture and Heritage is supporting a lot of artists [covering sunken costs etc.], but morale is at a very low point.” 

As a maker, Joe's concerned about the talent who will become casualties, and no longer accessible to him.  “How do we survive this?” he asks. “And who do we lose? With theatre, in particular, you’re always losing people – really talented people who could make a decent living if they were in the UK or Australia, but here, it feels impossible. The pandemic has just been salt on the wound… eventually, everyone just has to pay rent.” 

Though not “blissfully unaware” of the challenges 2022 may still bring, Joe says he remains optimistic. He has a video project being released in April, and a residency with the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship in the second half of the year. . Scenes from a Yellow Peril remains on track for a June opening. There’s a mixture of anticipation, nervousness and excitement about such a big production. “For all intents and purposes, this is sort of what any Kiwi playwright might dream of as the ultimate goal,” Joe says.

“When one of the country’s major theatre companies is putting on your play, as far as scale is concerned, this is the ceiling. But, what if it doesn’t happen? What if Covid thwarts it? You don’t want to get too excited about live performance right now, just in case.

“But also, if it does happen, what if it’s not what you thought it was going to be?

How do you measure success and is it even achievable? Having one major success still doesn’t make up for a lack of sustainability in the arts.”  

 - Asia Media Centre