Venue: Eternity Playhouse (Darlinghurst NSW), Mar 26 – Apr 17, 2022
Playwright: Aran Thangaratnam
Director: Bridget Balodis
Cast: Rose Adams, Brooke Lee, Dushan Philips, Kaivu Suvarna
Images by Phoebe Powell
Sai is joining his brother Niv at a snow resort. The two have always had a difficult relationship, but introducing Sai’s girlfriend Kate to the mix for the first time, is only making things worse. The young men are Asian-Australian with roots in Sri Lanka, and Kate is white, with very little familiarity about cultures beyond her ethnocentric existence. Niv has no tolerance for ignorance, so even though Kate means well, her social illiteracy causes incessant altercations to occur inside the chalet.
Aran Thangaratnam’s Stay Woke brings focus to the current process of reckoning, as we find ways to understand and undermine the white supremacy that has faced scant opposition these last few centuries. The comedy places one white character in tight quarters with three people of colour (including Niv’s romantic partner Mae), who now know better than to just let things slide. It is a challenging time, and the play helps make tangible, the difficult conversations that are taking place, as minorities devise strategies to confront the hegemony.
Thangaratnam’s writing is generous in spirit (there is no real vilification of Kate or any other white people), but its passion is unmistakable. The politics in Stay Woke are carefully considered, and its humour is well rendered, although some of its dialogue could benefit from being more conversational. Direction by Bridget Balodis too, lacks a convincing naturalism in early scenes, but as the stakes escalate, tensions are marvellously harnessed, in this mesmerising theatrical work about race relations and familial connections.
Production designer Matilda Woodroofe delivers a stunning set, complete with oversized windows revealing falling snow. Rachel Lee’s lights are invitingly warm, beautiful and nuanced, as they quietly transform with the show’s oft shifting moods. Sound design by Daniella A Esposito is ambitious, and perhaps too detailed in what it tries to establish for the staging, frequently drawing undue attention to itself, instead of providing gentle enhancement to the story being told.
Actor Dushan Philips brings great intensity to Niv, with a brand of overwrought expressiveness that feels entirely appropriate for the bombastic character. Kaivu Suvarna is a more subdued presence, but effective in cultivating an air of authenticity for the stage, as the more diplomatic Sai. Playing Kate is Rose Adams, who can be exaggerated with some of her comedy, although excellent at providing a clear interpretation of her role’s qualities. Brooke Lee is perhaps the most convincing of the cast, able to convey a sense of truthfulness for all their moments, whether comical or dramatic.
Stay Woke makes good points about who we are and how we should evolve, but there is a politeness to its pronouncements, that feels strangely conservative. For our art to be politically effective, it is necessary that we have the capacity to accommodate chaotic disruptions and unpleasurable assertions. We live in an awkward time, when so much of normalcy is being interrogated and deconstructed. For those who are used to experiencing big changes, we know that discomfort is a sensation that needs to be embraced, for without it, the old status quo remains triumphant.