WEiRdO overviews social issues New Zealand is still working on, including the stigma surrounding and access to financial benefits like the Dole. This preface quickly leads into its core idea, by showing us how Waylon (Waylon Edwards) is devalued by his coworker Richard (William Duignan) because of his Māori heritage. And there’s a wider point to this: Waylon’s heritage is never brought into the fray until Richard loses out on the coveted golden lanyard promotion. The man who was once Waylon’s superior is now his subordinate, and the only way Richard can justify this decision in his mind is to assume Waylon’s promotion is “a good look” for the company. Even when outranked, Richard continues to treat Waylon as someone beneath him.
It’s rather shocking to watch this thought process unfold, to see Richard stagger and stutter as his brain rationalises this decision before turning to this discriminative behaviour, to see Waylon’s joy and sense of fulfilment crumble as his friend and colleague trivialises the promotion. But then, it’s not very shocking, or so I realise. Because this is something people do experience in workspaces, in social spaces, in the world generally. Because it’s less acceptable for someone who’s a minority (someone who isn’t straight, white, cisgendered, male) to receive praise on behalf of their efforts. Richard tries to amend his racism and discrimination several times, only to end up making it much, much worse. And each time he does so, I’m shocked again, and then reminded of how real what’s going on before me can be.
That’s not to say WEiRdO doesn’t have a good dose of comedy. On the contrary, it’s the comedy that really helps to punctuate its point, to highlight the discrepancies, to rally the audience for Waylon’s cause. Take Richard’s ‘congratupology’ cake; one of the ways he tries to ‘make amends’ for outright proclaiming Waylon earned the promotion for being Māori rather than for his effort and contributions. He seems earnest, ready to atone, and Waylon is ready to accept the gift and forgive his colleague’s mistake... Until Richard plants the cake on the floor in front of Waylon instead of passing it to him. “There ya go,” he says, an interaction reminiscent of a pet owner feeding their dog. Waylon, clearly defeated and dumbfounded with his head hung, proceeds to slice up the cake and give it out the audience while Richard tries a round of other ‘gifts’ to congratupologise. It shows the difference between the two; Waylon tries to make the best out of this shitty situation, and Richard ends up making it shittier. How this scenario is a constant repetition throughout the show is downright hilarious, but it also shows how embedded the problem is, and even though we’ve started to tackle this discrimination and bigotry, the solution is in the making.
Performers Waylon Edwards and William Duignan work exceptionally well together, building off each other and showing the each struggles with (or without in some cases) power. Their seminar that opens the show is great example of their stage collaboration; it’s utter chaos watching Edwards stumble over the pieces of the makeshift projection screen, hands-rattling trying to piece it together, while Duignan watches from the sidelines, sending countenances of encouragement. When it starts, their lines feel like one larger speech; each flows onto the next one, with the other character typically picking up when the other ends a sentence. Yet even here, we see that Richard (Duignan) and Waylon (Edwards) are designed to be different, to be inequal. Duignan stands almost straight, slouching slightly, but he’s comfortable in his posture and in his power. He’s far calmer than his colleague, who Edwards portrays as an uncomfortable nervous wreck, constantly wiping the sweat from his brow. Even this early on, it’s clear something is on the line for Waylon, and more to the point, I sense he feels like he doesn’t belong. There’s such a world of difference between the pair, irrespective of their race and lanyard colour. This gap only widens as Waylon receives more power and Edwards seemingly becomes more relaxed, and Richard becomes more insecure and Duignan begins to lose his confidence in both speech, where he starts to stumble over his words, and his stance, where his body language is closed off and introspective.
WEiRdO has both musical moments (Duignan and Edwards) and a disembodied Te Reo Māori voiceover (Peta Kirikiri) to help the show deliver its core message about cultural identity. The musical segments offer a comic light to a worsening situation: it’s funny, yet both sad and frightening, how deep a hole Richard digs himself. Richard continues an oblivious tirade of butchering Te Reo, and cultural insensitivity, like providing Waylon with a pounamu tiki as a “placeholder” gift. Waylon grows tenser, twitchier, visibly angrier with each insult. He snaps, demands the guitar from Waylon, and then plays my favourite song of the night, “Richard Is a Shithead”, which then explodes into a wrestling match over Waylon’s gold lanyard. The whole ordeal is laughable because the audience knows full well that Richard is in the wrong, but when he tries to pass it off as a joke, again I feel the shock and pain of Waylon.
The voiceover first appears as an underlying chant, trying to reach Waylon by overpowering Richard’s voice, wanting to remind Waylon of who he is. I’m at once reminded of the question barrage opening the night: “Where are you from?” And then, I start to wonder who the voice is. What the voice is. As we watch, the voice’s words empower, uplift, and encourage Waylon. It’s evident he’s learned a little more about who he his, and he becomes noticeably more comfortable in his own skin. Waylon has found his voice, and addressing the audience in Te Reo Māori, he closes the play, smiling from cheek-to-cheek, nervous ticks absent from his body language. Waylon rediscovers an important part of himself, and we’re there to watch him overcome the doubt with which the “whitespace” and Richard bombarded him.
With the show’s end, the cast break character and tell us where WEiRdO comes from and what it means. This helps reinforce how we have made progress and why we should continue to work toward a place of cultural equity. I’m enamoured by the subtle and obvious idiosyncrasies of the clever characters; I’m infatuated by the balance between the comic and the serious; I’m charmed by how it breaks down a ‘complex issue’ to prove it’s actually rather simple to see what we’re doing wrong. All this cements that WEiRdO is a powerful, impactful, necessary piece of theatre. WEiRdO will leave you thinking about your place in helping Aotearoa progress to a more equal, more accepting, more loving place, just as it left me.
WEiRdO is currently showing at BATS Theatre until Saturday 4 November. Visit the BATS website for ticketing information.