Oscen Goes to… I AM RACHEL CHU


Jennifer Cheuk reviews the second season of I Am Rachel Chu in a follow-up to her previous review of the first season for Tearaway.

Photos courtesy of Nathan Joe

Watching I Am Rachel Chu again was a joy. It is rare to find a performance you enjoy just as much, if not more, twice. But, do not be fooled. The second season of I Am Rachel Chu is different. There is an energy that absolutely emanates from I Am Rachel Chu. A sort of furious realisation of being trapped. Trapped in word, in film, in dialogue, in advertisements, I Am Rachel Chu is concerned with the escapement of constraints. Words as constraints, as vessels of meaning unable to be freed from past usage — you must use the same set of phonemes as the boy in school who yelled racist slurs at you. How can we escape when our lives are governed by constraints? Especially as a person of colour, these constraints are stereotypes to which we are pitched against every day. Crazy Rich Asians was celebrated as a win, but is that all we are? Rachel Chu? Rachel Chu without even the distinction of chū chú chǔ chù, as the performers point out. So how do we escape, if not through subversion, through deconstruction? The constant representation of us as just Rachel Chu is white noise and now, we refuse to listen.

In my first review, I commented on the fact that “I Am Rachel Chu is messy, it is funny, it is poignant and it is real.” However, the second season felt it had a tighter grasp of the message and the thematic direction. The energy was balled up, rather than completely unconstrained and left to burn on stage. Things were more deliberate — the presence of improvisation was gone, but spontaneity was still maintained. This is a rare feature of a good performance: sitting on the very edge of your seat, leaning in and wanting to fall into the reality of the stage, and yet knowing the connecting strings of each scene, each character, each underlying concept.

The set had discarded the hanging black frames and I personally preferred this. It felt less like a clumsy nod to ideas of being ‘framed’ by stereotyped Asian representation. Rather, the stage construction was completely minimalist, save for three blocks, used as the only prop throughout. Meaning was not bound or preconceived, but fluid. The second season of I Am Rachel Chu felt more conscious of its layers and encouraged audience engagement with meaning. The black frames of the first season presented a bounded interpretation, one that was not to be tampered with. But the set construction and overall feel of the second season was unbounded; it was free from set meaning. Because of the multiplicity of layers in I Am Rachel Chu, I felt this suited the performance more. To explicitly constrain costumes, props, stage with pre-set meaning would be a shame for such a performance. I loved the second season, perhaps a little more than the first because meaning felt deliberate, but not constrained.

I Am Rachel Chu is a necessity in our current social landscape. A necessity when Asian representation has just become the same repetitive white noise, a hundred Rachel Chus resigning themselves to the plot of Asian-ness. But what is Asian-ness? Am I being subversive or simply unaware? Watching it again forced me to think more introspectively about my culture and race. How do I interact with myself, how do I escape from the stereotypes I play in to? Who is Rachel Chu to me? What an honour to attend a show twice and think even more deeply with each time I attend.

As usual, a fantastic performance. To walk out of a theatre and genuinely feel something is quite rare. I Am Rachel Chu is universal and specific, it is graceful and messy. It is a performance of disjunctions because this is what I Am Rachel Chu is concerned with: the disjunction between the real Rachel Chu and the Rachel Chu that has been force-fed to us.

About the author
Jennifer Cheuk is a Linguistics and Literature student at Auckland University. She published her first anthology of writing at 15. Jennifer is also a cartoonist and illustrator - you can find her work on instagram: @selcouthbird