Nahyeon Lee’s new theatrical show, The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom was written as part of Proudly Asian Theatre’s Fresh off the Page initiative in 2019, and two years later, picked up for production by Silo Theatre. It’s playing in Auckland until 27 November 2022. Asia Media Centre talks to Lee about how the work has evolved through the pandemic, and the pressures that have come with putting on an Asian-led show.
Nahyeon Lee comes from a background of screen production. It’s TV and film that she has specialised in, so The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom – which is actually a work of live theatre – has been an opportunity for growth.
“Growing up my family never engaged in theatre in Auckland, so I discovered it, started producing for it, and thought it was a fertile place for makers to produce work quickly. Which is a little bit different from film (unless you’re doing that with no money). "
And this is, indeed, an urgent work. There’s a lot to pack into one hour. “It's 60-minute show. The characters are putting together a fictional live taping of a sitcom (the first of its kind in Aotearoa). You get to experience that live taping and watch the story unfold, then you begin to see the aftermath of the sitcom as well as how it came to be.”
However, since writing the show, at least two prime-time Asian sitcoms have actually screened in New Zealand – Creamerie and Raised by Refugees. Yet this show remains more important than ever.
“We’re still existing in the same systems. In terms of the work changing, a lot of things happened in between [writing and production], there was Covid, there was the anti-Asian hate movement which was sparked by a mass shooting of Asian women in the US, those things really fed into the urgency of wanting to write this. It added to the political complexity of how I was feeling.
“But I also changed. I made work, I experienced more systemic barriers, and it’s made me more emboldened.”
Asian creatives are being given more opportunities to present their work than ever before in the West, but is that something the film, television, and theatre industries should be congratulated for? “I think we’re having a bit of a moment, but I also feel it’s a tragedy that we have to have a tragedy to justify our stories or our existences,” Lee says.
“What’s most admirable to me is persistence and doggedness, regardless. It’s problematic in Asian stories – why do we have to use instances of world tragedy or hate crime to finally get attention turned on us?”
The First Prime-Time Asian Sitcom lies right in the intersection of trying to have the agency to define your own stories, and putting forth what you want to say. “Being a maker, you still exist in a series of systems and hegemonies,” says Lee.
“In Aotearoa we live in a predominantly Pakeha hegemony, so the Asian diaspora is constantly fighting an uphill battle. You aren’t the one defining your own values necessarily. Especially when you have to exist [and make a living] in an industry.
“So this work is a raging war cry. It’s asking the hard questions about how we define ourselves in a system that doesn’t always have our best interests in mind, but has never predominately had Asian diaspora interests in mind until now.”
In real life, within the white-led systems of power, there’s often not a clear antagonist – no one “bad guy” to take down. It’s a whole establishment. “That’s something I was constantly thinking about when writing this play, because storytelling 101 is that you must have a character to represent everything your main character is fighting against.
“I didn’t want to have a clear, singular antagonist because I don’t want to give people really easy answers. The problem is we are crushed under these expectations of this way of being, whether that’s capitalistic systems or white supremacist systems… it’s a system of ideologies. It’s not necessarily one person, it’s an institution.
“It’s not a singular gatekeeper. It’s much more complex than that, and I wanted to build in that difficult ambiguity – that’s more interesting to me as a maker, than having a really easy solve… because there isn’t an easy solve. It’s slow and its hard.”
Lee has a love-hate relationship with sitcoms. Every time she was stressed when she was younger she would watched Friends reruns. “It became this comfort food for me. The screen medium makes you so close to the characters you really do think they’re your friends – it’s literally called Friends. You’re so invested in their lives.”
Yet the sitcom in general has historically been quite monocultural. From Friends to Seinfeld to Sex and the City, presented us with just one kind of person. Growing up in the 1990s and 2000s, Lee says we were only given “Hollywood white people” to look up to, but that has started to change in the last decade.
“I guess when Fresh off the Boat (2015) came out, I was like, ‘oh look, they’re doing Asian stories’. But then when I watched it, I started to wonder if I actually felt represented by it,” Lee explains. “And then there was all my complex baggage. Why did I hold it to a higher standard? Why do I feel like these stories don’t speak to me when I’ve allowed Friends to get away with it for so long? That was probably the first time I realised something was missing.”
The burden is “ridiculous”, Lee says, to ask Asian makers to represent their communities. Any creative work should be more about individual expression. “I hope it’s not about having to represent anymore, it’s about artistic freedom,” she adds.
Inasmuch, Lee agrees each piece of work from the Asian diaspora is just one nuanced voice that adds to the tapestry of experiences of Asian people. “That pressure in the past has also come from the lack of opportunities to make Asian works. That pressure-cooker environment (combined with the scarcity of opportunity to present work) has made Asian makers feel an unfair burden.”
- Asia Media Centre