Review: Roots (Uxbridge Theatre)
Updated: Jun 2, 2022
Not sure where you're from? Not sure how you came to be? Not sure whether it even matters? "Roots", a solo show about tracing family back and paying respects, was written by Oliver Chong and first performed in 2012 and has been brought back to the stage staring Amanda Grace Leo in Howick's Uxbridge Theatre. Performed in English and Mandarin, with subtitles in both languages, the themes of heritage and identity could not be more relevant than to the diversity of Auckland.
Chong's writing really stands out, in what could easily be a story that could be difficult to follow (part of which involves a villiage in which everyone' surname is Chong). Instead, the complexity of the scenarios and connections never over powered the style of the writing, and provided close attention is paid it is really intriguing to discover where each trail will lead and what will be discovered. Despite most of the play being rather comical and entertaining in the same way as a one-on-one holiday story, it also maintains a weight and personal importance which you as an audience never lose sight of.
This is of course aided by Leo's impressive ability to switch between characters fluidly and distinctively. She is an inherently vivid story teller, even when there are distractions (for example a fire exit being opened unexpectedly) she take advantage of it, remains in character and plays it to comic effect. There were moments of error in the performance, not helped by the fact that the subtitles made skipped and mispoken lines all the more obvious, but the recovery was so smooth that it left little impression, and reinforced the act that a strong performance with holes in it will always outshine a flawless but underwhelming one.
The design concept was also interesting, especially for a fringe show which are more often than not performed on a bare stage. Rice, which I initially mistook for a carpet, is spread carefully on the ground, and is swept away in style and patterns throughout the show, the patterns and messiness of it relating to the journey. It's a creative idea and leads to an wonderful stage image throughout as Leo celebrates her success and takes out her frustrations on the grains covering up her cultural identity.
Roots takes a personal narrative about self discovery, and turns it into an entertaining and enlightening piece of theatre. Leo's commitment to her character is such that, until after the show, I was quite convinced the story was her own. It is easy to see why this show is so popular in its native Singapore, and whether you know your roots or not, it is definitely worth going to watch Chong discover hers. Four stars.