You’re in a cafe; a restaurant; a bar. You start catching snatches of conversation from nearby. Hopes, dreams, private politics, and secret desires of characters from across the Chinese diaspora. A tenuous facade between a restaurant owner and customer, obnoxious un-PC mutterings from the table behind you, an anxious hand-wrangling conversation about something monumentally important.
Enhanced eavesdropping via tourguide audio devices (specially provided by Ours Travel) and headphones enable this live site-specific drama by Chinese Arts Now; a happening designed to take place within the York Theatre Royal colonnade cafe. Performers Alice Lee (From Shore to Shore; Chiamerica), Jennifer Lim (Hostel; A Monster Calls) and Shuang Teng (Butterfly Lovers; Jane Eyre) enact this triptych of short plays written by Joel Tan and directed by Mingyu Lin, exploring the nuance and variety of Chinese experience in York, using the framing of cafe culture. As Tan says, “No singular Chinese identity is ever negotiated in these spaces: they play host to as many Chinese identities as there are generations of migratory pathways.”
Citing the ascendancy of modern China, contemporary Chinese identities and “perennial anxieties”, the scripts investigate “how to resist being poorly understood” in clever, complex ways. Music and recorded clips of speech play between the scenes, keeping you engaged while the actors change. For starters: the 55-minute collection piece begins with a young employee who has lied to her boss about speaking Mandarin to land the job, and is now paying the price in anxiety that she ends up sharing with the restaurant owner, who she enlists to help convince the impending important client that everything is as promised. The cast shift easily between very disparate characters from various backgrounds and with completely different dialects. Lim in particular is totally natural, heightening the juxtaposition against Lee’s chillingly deadpan corporate cynic in the final vignette – all the more discomforting after Lee opens the play as the appeasing, lilting restaurant owner with a fixed merchant’s smile.
Over the duration, more and more nuance is introduced into the wider conversation about Chinese people in York right now. While Coronavirus becomes the latest excuse for everyday racism, Overheard is a vital moment of stark investigation into our behaviours and beliefs in the UK. The show continues with a London run, featuring in CAN Festival 2020, celebrating the very best contemporary British-Chinese performing arts. Find out more here.