Nathan Joe's Yellow Peril

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, is making headlines this year with his play Scenes from a Yellow Peril, a visceral and provocative new show that navigates the complexities of being young, sexual, and Asian in New Zealand. 

"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 in 2022 but was unfortunately cancelled due to pandemic restrictions. 

Scenes from a Yellow Peril, 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.

Joe (centre) and the cast and crew from Scenes from a Yellow Peril in a Q&A session | Photo: Andi Crown

“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. 

“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 was 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. "80-90 percent of my live plays, readings, poetry were cancelled or indefinitely postponed. Larger festivals were all cancelled." 

Scenes from a Yellow Peril, thankfully, has enjoyed a full restriction-free run with sold out shows. It has been a long time getting here though: the first draft was written in 2018. It first had a public reading via Proudly Asian Theatre's Fresh Off The Page series in December that year, excerpts were performed at TEDxAuckland 2019 and the 2019 New Zealand Young Writers Festival, but then the pandemic meant it had to go quiet for a while. It was, however, part of the Auckland Arts Festival in 2021 as a staged play reading, and had its world premiere on 23 June 2022 as part of ATC's 2022 season. 

One of 14 poems, or "scenarios for the assimilated Asian", performed by Joe and cast | Photo: Andi Crown

The play comprises a series of 14 spoken-word poems, performed by an all-East-Asian cast (including himself). Queerness, sex, racism, rage, and societal expectations are the heaviest themes of the production. It's an uncomfortable and important watch, one that highlights the modern struggles of living in an Asian body in Aotearoa in the 21st Century.  Explicit, endearing, funny... Scenes from a Yellow Peril is everything you'd hope from a young queer playwright of colour, but is somehow still entirely unexpected when you see it. 

Though not “blissfully unaware” of the challenges the future may still bring to the arts community, Joe is optimistic with the success of his new play. He also released a video project in April, and has a residency with the Grimshaw Sargeson Fellowship in the second half of the year. Scenes from a Yellow Peril runs through 3 July. There was 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.

 "I never imagined Auckland Theatre Company would ever stage one of my plays, especially not this one," Joe says. "But here we are. Now I'm finally writing about horny Asians. Just kidding (mostly)." 

"Decolonise the body. We are all meatsacks" is one poem that garners a very strong reaction from the audience | Photo: Andi Crown

 - Asia Media Centre