Yellow Fever brings old school detective films back to Firehall Arts Centre

The play takes audiences to Powell Street in the 1970’s

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Darkened stage set with warm spotlights cast on a checkered floor decal with 5 stools set up for a Q&A. Behind them is a glowing projection of a pink cherry blossom branch extending out horizontally.
A murder mystery unfolds for detective Sam Shikaze. Photo Credit: Photo Courtesy of Kelly Chia / The Peak

By: Kelly Chia, Humour Editor

Content warning: anti-Asian racism

Yellow Fever is Firehall Arts Centre’s dedication to the film noir era and Japanese Canadian experiences on Powell Street. It stars Hiro Kanagawa as the cynical but charming private eye, Sam Shikaze, investigating the disappearance of the Cherry Blossom Queen. Narrating the story, Shikaze contends with racism post-World War II. The play stayed generally true to the original version written by playwright Rick Shiomi but deviated in the beginning, connecting racism facing Asian Canadians then and now.

Set in the 1970s, director Donna Spencer writes in the program that this play was first put on 34 years ago. When it was performed again as a radio play in 2020, the cast found themselves grappling with anti-Asian sentiment due to the pandemic, paralleling the play’s backdrop which was set against the anti-Asian attitudes of 1970s Vancouver.

This tension remained in Spencer’s iteration. The play starts with a CBC news clip of Dr. Bonnie Henry instating lockdown procedures in March 2020. Soon after, another clip plays, discussing a 92 year old Asian man’s assault in April 2020. For many people in the Asian Canadian community, including myself, this incident weighed heavily as one of many news incidents of anti-Asian hate crime in Vancouver 2020. 

This more contemporary section of the play comes in the form of a flashback to 2020. Nancy Wing (Agnes Tong) hurries onto the stage, lamenting that she was verbally assaulted on a SkyTrain ride, an experience that resonated with my fears when riding the SkyTrain two years ago. The other cast members comfort Tong, talking about similar experiences. While I sympathized with Tong’s experiences, I found this section abrupt. I wished it had been more fleshed out so we could hear more about how the systemic racism featured in the play also translates to issues of the model minority myth and anti-Asian sentiments, today

The play then moves onto Kanagawa narrating the beginning as Sam, stroking his brimmed hat thoughtfully monologuing about Japanese Canadians dispersing from Powell Street after World War II. Sam is every bit the gruff, life-hardened detective that you’d expect from an old-school film noir. He is witty, charming, and carries several chips on his shoulders, but he cares deeply for his community. 

Sam navigates the deep-seated racism and corruption within the police force as he investigates the disappearance of the Cherry Blossom Queen. This is where Yellow Fever delves into model minority attitudes, like the tensions between the independent Sam and the rule-abiding police captain Kenji Kadota (Jay Ono), as well as their challenges navigating racism from white officers.

Although the set of the play is only a set of chairs, a window, and sound equipment, the play was so vivid. On the left of the set of chairs, sound foley, Evan Rein, was creating the bubbling woks, door chimes, and the sound of chopped vegetables. I delighted at every auditory clink of the glass, every cup of tea poured. You could close your eyes and picture the world of a film noir set in 1970’s Powell Street: Sam’s dingy office, the warmth of the set’s cafe, and the rounds fired off at smoky late night stand-offs. Rein’s sound brought the world to life, and what an intriguing world it was. 

The play blends film noir with the larger theme of tackling the nuances of racism well, especially in the case of Kenji whose unquestioning loyalty inadvertently traps him in a white supremacist conspiracy. One thing’s for sure: the cast and crew of the show are immensely talented. Come see the show, and immerse yourself in this aloof murder mystery.

Yellow Fever is in theatres May 28–June 12, 2022. Tickets are sold online at firehallartscentre.ca.