The Mooncake and the Kumara is a uniquely New Zealand story, set nearly ninety years ago in a market garden, where two families, one Maori and the other Chinese, become part of a romance that uproots their lives over generations.
As the writer Mei-Lin Te Puea Hansen says in her notes: It tells a story about “a rarely examined part of our nation’s history and the sometimes forgotten people who helped shape this place.”
It was enlightening to get an insight into this part of New Zealand history, and how these cultures had to learn to get along – despite different ways of doing things, and their obvious cultural differences. I saw some parallels between this play and the new opera, The Bone Feeder, which I saw at Auckland Arts Festival this year, with the use of English, Maori and Chinese, and the intermingling of these languages. I also saw a nice parallel with the use of a ghost character as a pivotal part of the story.
This play was a sell-out at the Auckland Arts Festival in 2015, and I can see why. I found it really moving and mesmerising to watch at times.There were some great laughs, especially for Choi the Chinese elder, played brilliantly by Charles Chan – who did an excellent job of playing the stubborn, at times grumpy old man, speaking loudly in Chinese whenever he disagreed with something.
There were also moments of raw emotion, that really drew you in. Some poignant solo speeches – of letters being sent home to family, as Choi and Finlayson relayed their stories in very different ways to distant relatives. Both with their own versions of the truth. Finlayson the English landlord, played by Jeremy Randerson, with a convincing West Country accent, (he also plays a great shambling drunk) – lies in his letters about how happy he is, often through a drunken haze.
Elsie’s mother Wae – played by Waimihi Hotere, really hits home with an emotional speech at the climax of the play, a performance that gripped me so much I couldn’t look away.
There were touching scenes between Yee and Elsie, getting to know each other by learning words in each others’ languages – all of these more revealing moments happened by the light of the moon. Sam Wang and Neenah Dekkers-Reihana brought an innocence and earnestness to their roles, that made these scenes play out so naturally.
The moon seemed like another character in this play, a ubiquitous presence in many scenes. All these characters inhabit different worlds within their own families, some are more isolated – but they’re all looking up at the same moon.
“I have a moon story too,” says Leilan – the lone figure of the Chinese wife, played beautifully by Katlyn Wong, who brought a mix of playfulness and compelling vulnerability to the role. Leilan represents all the women and children left behind when their husbands came to New Zealand to work, many never to return. Throughout the play she speaks alone, telling tales of the distant world she inhabits, sometimes wandering into the worlds of the other characters like a ghost – she can see them, but they can’t see her. Her speech about writing to her husband “from the other side of life” was a real showstopper.
This play is full of wonderful acting and storytelling, and very real performances. You felt like you were right there with them, wrapped up in their world and fully experiencing every moment. If you missed it last time, I would highly recommend seeing it.
The Mooncake and the Kumara runs from 28 June – 8 July, as part of Matariki Festival, at Loft, Q Theatre. Tickets from qtheatre.co.nz