James Roque comedy review: Messy, engaging, and my favourite show this festival

James Roque, who is one-third of the skit show Frickin Dangerous Bro, strikes out alone and really shines, writes Jean Teng - who both laughed, then cried at his solo show.

James Roque greets you as you walk in – a set-up for a later joke – but I avert my eyes immediately. I didn’t come to a comedy show to be seen. It later gets worse when he executes one of my biggest primary-school pet-hates: asking the audience to turn to the person next to you and say hello. I didn’t come to a comedy show to make friends.

But Roque seems really determined to be our friend. He poses for Instagram photos (“tag me in that shit”) and makes direct eye contact with the back row. It so effortlessly brings the crowd around to his side, that when he hits us with a two-minute-long impassioned soliloquy about institutional racism near the end of the set, it feels less like a Ted Talk and more like that sometimes-insufferable friend from university who makes great points but lectures you while you’re just trying to eat your laksa, and who you, despite all odds, love.

Boy Mestizo – mestizo generally meaning a half-Spanish, half-white person in the Filipino context, or someone with European features – is messy, engaging, and my favourite show I saw at this year’s festival.

It loosely follows Roque’s first trip back to the Philippines in 20 years with his white girlfriend; he meets a lot of his extended family for the first time, and experiences muddled feelings of belonging. When he gets there, he quickly realises that growing up in New Zealand has shaped his worldview in a much different way to his family in the Philippines, and he bumps up against instances of internalised racism normalised through colonisation and its effects – colourism, for example, is a recurring theme.

Roque deals with this with grace and humour. His criticism of his family’s words are not about their character but about a system which encourages their thoughts – his sketches of an uncle, a grandmother, are obviously affectionate. I don’t want to spoil the gags, but I can say he’s generally successful at balancing the clumsy heaviness of the messages with its delivery method – some of them unconventional, one of which has resulted in Confessions by Usher playing in my head over and over again the morning after – managing to make sharp-tongued jabs softer. And funnier.

I just want to drive that point home: this show is funny. And when this sort of comedy is done well, it can be effective as hell. I've never actually seen Roque perform solo before, so I can't comment on his journey, but where he's ended up is somewhere really slick. He's infinitely better here than on any Frickin Dangerous Bro skit I've seen.

Growing up Asian in New Zealand is its own thing, by the way, and those issues don’t go unaddressed either. There were some moments of discomfort, on my part, of a majority-white audience laughing at some of the insecurities which seemed to be plucked right out of my own mind. But Roque put in the work earlier in the show, prefacing these insecurities with all the factors of why.

A part of me really hates Roque for making me confront my own identity issues on a Tuesday night at a comedy show, but another part really, really loves it. One hang-up of mine his show exposed so cleanly was my anxiety at insistently talking about race on such a big platform. I kept looking around the room thinking, “Is this too much? Is he talking too much about race? Are the white people getting annoyed? Does this play too much into what people expect from an Asian comedian?” Internalised bullshit is a real kicker, huh.

I’ve been to around five comedy shows at this year’s festival, and this had the most diverse audience, by far. Zero points for guessing why. When I came home that night and told my 60-year-old dad about the show, he asked me how much tickets were. Because he wanted to go. My reaction to Boy Mestizo reminded me of a time, a few years ago, when a white New Zealand entertainment critic on NZHerald gave a middling review to Hasan Minaj’s stand-up special Homecoming King, saying he ended up giving up halfway, calling it “self-indulgent”.

Both made me sob like a baby.

James Roque is performing four more shows of Boy Mestizo from 15-18 May. Get tickets here.

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