Hetain Patel’s ‘American Boy’

*Date published in Speaker Newspaper: 30 October 2015*

Moiza Butt reviews Patel’s performance and interviews the up-and-coming visual artist about how he is using the stage to tackle stereotypes.

This was a night for the movie geeks: full of quotes and epic scenes performed by one man.  It was filled with all your favourite movies scenes in one show. Every successful movie was featured from Shawshank Redemption to Men in Black.  It made me want to watch movies I hadn’t seen before and re-watch the ones I loved.  This was American Boy by artist, Hetain Patel at the Contact Theatre on October 1st.   

Patel is best known for his TED Talks, Who Am I? an important piece on language and identity.  American Boy is a similar piece as Patel describes it as a “reflection on the primary influences on culture that affected me essentially”.

I was surprised to see Patel’s piece was on American culture after discovering he was born and raised in Bolton. However, he explained how American culture was a huge influence on him whilst growing up.

When I was growing up, there were only four channels on TV. When you’re at school, if you come in the day after, at night, everyone has seen the same movie. So we would discuss this movie, do impersonations of it.  It felt like there was a shared culture there or a shared reference point – there was no internet. Invariably all these movies were American, Hollywood.”

One of these movies is Spiderman, which is incorporated into the performance.  So how does Spiderman fit in?

“I’ve drawn on Spiderman a lot because it’s one of the few superheroes, which covers every inch of his skin. So, you know as a brown kid growing up, you don’t want to be called the Indian Spiderman or the Asian Spiderman like the way you would if you dressed up as Superman. With Spiderman, you can just be Spiderman so I’m interested in what it talks about in the terms of identity – a lot of kids wanting to be this hero and not being limited through their skin and ethnicity.”

This was portrayed throughout the performance as Patel stripped back by removing a piece of clothing, so that he was ready to dress up as Spiderman.  It was as though by removing his clothing, he was removing himself of stereotypes and alter egos, to become whoever he wanted to be.

Patel discussed at length why he wants to go beyond our definitions of  stereotypes.

“Part of my mission in a way because my work is predominantly seen in a Western context is to de-exoticise myself. If I’m a brown guy performing in the UK, and I want to reference stuff to my identity or my heritage, it can be easy to put me into a box and say he’s talking about something Indian or British Indian and actually I’m not interested in all of that. I want to get rid of those definitions.”

I think American Boy did just that. Despite being a “brown kid” as Patel describes, the purpose of his performance was the shared love of movies rather than a ‘brown kid’s’ version of his favourite movies.

My favourite part of the piece was the recreated scene of The Usual Suspects.  Patel performed the original scene towards the beginning of the show and then, towards the end of the show, performed it differently.

He changed the characters of the scene to famous voices such as Mr Smithers from The Simpsons.  The show consisted of cutting and pasting scenes from movies and shows into different parts of the performance yet flowed into each scene, combining them perfectly.  Patel would perform a scene from Pulp Fiction, then Men in Black and then slip in again to Pulp Fiction.

I also enjoyed how recognisable Patel’s accents and impersonations were as at times it was difficult to know which was the real him. My favourite alter ego was Real Deal Spidey: a YouTuber who loves Spiderman.  The audience recognised the alter ego straight away and in some ways he reflected the audience.

Despite being entertained by the performances, I was slightly disappointed to see that  American Boy was unlike Patel’s previous work such as TED Talks Who Am I?, which raises important questions on identity, culture and or perceptions of certain stereotypes.  As excellent as American Boy was, I felt it didn’t ask much from me.  The concept of the piece was great, it made me laugh and I loved trying to figure out what movie would be performed next but I didn’t leave the theatre feeling overwhelmed.

However, I feel as though that is my personal preference.  Whereas I enjoy thought-provoking pieces, others like to be entertained – this was clear from the belly-full laughter and cheers from the audience.

Patel revealed to Speaker that he is currently working on American Boy 2 and I have to say, I am curious to see what’s next!