Asian-Australians have been part of the cultural fabric of our society for generations, so it is baffling to contemplate the level of racism and ignorance that is still levelled against anyone who looks Asian, even if they were born in Nambour on the Sunshine Coast and only speak English.
Not only do the taunts of “go back to where you come from” continue to prove how deep the human attachment to appearance-as-otherness is, but as Michelle Law (writer) highlights, we silo people into classes and then deny them mainstream representation so nobody, including the self, gets to understand who they are in the third person. Single Asian Female (showing at La Boite until March 4), starting with its very title, hopes to begin the unravelling of this.
A serious-at-times comedy, we connect with the Wong family as they try to negotiate their lives beneath the burden of the triple-title label that succeeds in isolating them from their peers. Pearl, Mother-Wong (Hsiao –Liang Tang) greets us at the classic suburban Chinese restaurant (we receive our tickets in a red lucky-money envelope so this is a special occasion). The Chinese Restaurant is an icon which has strangely become synonymous with assimilation – as Pearl reminds us in her introduction, hunger is the one thing that unites us all. But hunger goes beyond food doesn’t it? We hunger for acceptance, for likeness, for kindness, respect and truth. And as we are ensconced in the stories of these three women, we learn more about what it is that each of them desire and it is all very familiar.
Pearl welcomes us with a rousing karaoke rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’. Standing atop the restaurant tables (a nice bit of set design here by Moe Assaad who uses a touch of cabaret seating to bring the restaurant to life), Pearl belts out the hit from the seventies – a time when she was likely trying to survive as a new migrant in Australia while all these years later she is still trying just to survive: divorce, single motherhood and teenage daughters. As the first act gets into full swing, it becomes obvious that surviving has taken its toll on Pearl – a world-worn lethargy that I recognise in the faces of so many middle-aged women as if their universal expression screams out ‘enough with surviving already!’ and the story baton passes from Asian to Female to Mother and then back again. The restaurant in this context has become a prison.
Daughters Zoe (Alex Lee) and Mei (Courtney Stewart), like many young women are selfish, highly-strung and insensitive. Mei, the stereotypical teenager approaching her formal, wants to cast off everything that makes her unique (including her mother) and longs to pour herself into that bland mould to which teenagers aspire- the mould is modelled perfectly by the insipid mean-girl Lana (Emily Vascotto) and opposed by her ever-delightful bestie, Katie (Emily Burton) who finds herself pushed to the outer as Mei seeks acceptance to the inner circle (Katie’s formal outfit is legendary by the way). Bookended by her mother and sister, is Zoe, old enough to have made some mistakes already but not too far gone to turn them around. She is at the precipice of choice – choosing life, a partner, a career and she is the one who must step up to keep her family together.
At two hours (excluding interval) Law covers a lot of ground and many levels. The work feels at times, a little diluted in the lengthy first act which is kept light with lively teenage banter and political slights but seems shy to dive into depth too quickly. The events these women are going through are pretty serious moments of change and at times the gravity of what is unfolding seems to clash with the comedy but that is not unlike real life. Act two is juicy and rich with drama as the two young Wongs must step over that threshold between youth and maturity when they discover a dark secret their mother has been keeping from them (here Hsiao-Liang Tang shows the diversity of her talent). Pearl’s journey is the real thread of this story and one that is not just rarely, but never told in our media. The migrant mother who gives over everything in favour of the advancement of her family and then finds herself isolated from their new lives, often the last to access language, with her fate tied to the will of her husband and the deepening ridge between her and her children.
Assaad’s design, set across two levels, restaurant downstairs, family nest upstair, is very well designed (with a surprising and unique approach to providing space for the toilet scene) and Claire Christen’s direction optimises the space ensuring easy and interesting viewing from all angles of the Roundhouse.
Michelle Law discusses her envy at seeing other audiences in other shows enjoy characters that validate their existence and although my connection with this fictional Wong family is limited to the experience of woman and fatherlessness, I absolutely understand the feeling Law speaks of when one is finally validated with reflections of themselves. What Single Asian Female represents is the start of a new era of ‘other theatre’, an important era that will hopefully continue to find momentum and support in our national theatre scene.