The soundtrack to this show is amazing. It sounds like being 18, like getting ready to go out with friends and wearing hoop earrings. It sounds like all the things I loved most about being a teenager.
Alissa Anne Jeun Yi isn’t a teenager anymore, of course. But she is going to tell us a story, via poems she wrote about her first crushes. These poems are really not as embarrassing as you might think. In fact, they are charming, just like her. Their warmth is tangible and her face shines out from behind the shaking paper. A brush of a knee, a prolonged look in a corridor, a laugh shared in secret – the things that make us tingle when we’re young, that make us think we are in love. In her first poem, Alissa is shy and stumbles over her words. The sentences repeat and the rhymes are half complete. Her nerves make her hands shake a little – I want to give her a hug and say it’s okay, you’re doing really well, everything will be just fine. I think every young girl sees herself in those nerves – the sick, wobbly feeling when you go on a date for the first time ever, or when you see someone you like, or when someone tells you that you’re important.
And so, through these poems, we see her. Her childhood and her teenage years and her worries and her hopes, and most importantly; her relationships. She asks if we’ve ever loved someone who didn’t love us back – I raise my hand reluctantly and so do lots of other people. Unrequited love is universal theme, clearly. We’re on her side and everyone laughs along with her, even when the jokes don’t quite land.
Alissa is Chinese and love is a little more imbued with stereotypes and compliments involving the word ‘exotic’ for her. She’s a hopeless romantic so the first boy at university that she meets who takes an interest, she instantly falls in love with. And fair enough, he’s dorky and wears glasses and has an earring and is so exactly my type that it’s sort of uncanny. She employs members of the audience as stand ins for her various encounters – she asks them their name, and “Andrew” becomes her first love. He even looks a little like how she describes him. This sometimes works, but it’s also a little awkward. The audience members don’t necessarily have to “do” anything as such, Alissa just talks at them. It seems like her gut is telling her to mess around with them a bit, but again nerves seem to get the better of her.
Then we move into different territory. Enough of the dancing, the giggles, the romance, the love stories. Instead, it starts with a pizza. Alissa sits on a chair, looks us all in the eye, and just talks to us. It’s at this moment that she is at her most comfortable. We see her and she sees us, and there’s an unspoken solidarity, an unspoken love. When she tells us she was sexually assaulted, it is a shock. A woman in front of me begins to breathe deeply, breathe quicker. I extend a soft, imaginary hand to hers, and give it a squeeze. It’s going to be okay.
Alissa asks us to do this with her. We all feel a little calmer. Things are the same as they were before but, we feel a little better about them. Then we dance, and she takes the woman, now weeping, up on stage with her and they boogie together. It’s quite lovely, actually. Alissa tells us that her first love wasn’t really Andrew at all, but writing. We knew this already, of course, and it seems she is saying it for herself as much as she is saying it for us. We’re not teenagers anymore, and we find our love in new places. In words, in music, in theatre, in friends, and in sharing. For all its fumbles and awkwardness, Love Songs is an insight into Asian womanhood, love, acceptance, and strength.
Love Songs is on until 26 August 2018 at Delhi Belly, Underbelly Cowgate. Click here for more information.