Theatre Works: Saltwater & Letters Home

Saltwater and Letters Home is a double bill of solo shows by 20-something artists who were born and brought up in Singapore and now live in Australia. Jamie Lewis and Joe Lui share their stories of  parents and childhood to explore what they think of when asked about “home”.

Joe Lui, Jamie Lewis
Joe Lui, Jamie Lewis

Jamie Lewis’s Saltwater can only welcome enough people to fit around a large dining table. The back of the Theatre Works space has become her living room, with hand-washing bowls hanging from the ceiling, a small kitchen in the corner and the round table where we sit, talk and eat.

The first task is trimming bean sprouts and the group – mostly strangers – almost immediately start talking about cooking as our all-in or clean-bench styles become obvious.

Jamie encourages conversation, but it isn’t long until she’s telling us about her mother, cooking and family dinners. Jamie was brought up in Singapore and moved to Melbourne when she fell in love with and married an Australian.

She talks about Christmas dinners and the Eurasian Devil’s Curry that every family expects in Singapore (think Christmas leftovers Malaysian–Chinese style ) and wonders why her mother told her that marriage is hard work. Her story, of the first time she hosted a family Christmas in Australia, continues as she serves us her vegetarian version of the curry – which is delicious – and a dessert of Wife Cake.

It’s a loving reflection on the mother–daughter relationship and cross-cultural relationships and its informality lets the audience become family for an hour as differences and awkwardness disappear.

Its style of cooking and serving food while telling a story is similar to Barking Spider’s recent One Suitcase, Four Stories (about being Italian and living in Northcote) and Dokboki Box (about living in South Korea) at last year’s Next Wave festival. The experience was delightful but it left us with more questions than answers about Jamie and could benefit from a re-focus on the story and the conflict or question that’s being explored.

The second show is Letters Home by Perth-based Joe Lui. With bookshelves, plastic curtains and a changing projection onto an artists canvas, its theatre setting is his dream world. There’s also some cooking, but it’s a more intimate work as Joe reveals his demons and questions if he will ever see his parents again.

His upbringing wasn’t as loving as Jamie’s. When he went to Perth to go to university (he’d earned money as a host on a children’s tv show), he knew he had two years of unavoidable National Service or three years in gaol on his return. He didn’t get on his flight back to Singapore.

Letters Home is a series of letters that his parents may never see about how he became his true self in Australia and why he left his childhood and upbringing as far away as he could. He begins by adding pre-made stock (!) to a traditional steam boat dish and apologises to his parents for the overly emotional and earnestly angry first letter he did send them – is there anyone who shouldn’t apologise letters we wrote in our early 20s – when he didn’t return home.

Joe isn’t his birth name and the story about why he chose it is brilliant. His parents probably wouldn’t call him Joe and may not even recognise the man with long hair who wears a red Asian dressing coat over his blacks; has the logo of his company, Renegade Productions, tattooed on his chest; and is thrilled to have broken at least every sexual taboo he grew up with. And he’s certain that they wouldn’t be proud of the success and respect he has in Perth’s independent and professional thearte world.

Their voice is silent and the noise of that silence raises as many questions as it answers.

Sure, it could also benefit from a less-attached dramaturgical tighten that focuses on story, but it’s a strong and powerful piece that leaves the audience feeling like they know Joe Lui as a friend and are more than happy to be a part of his extended new family of friends in Australia.

Anne-Marie Peard

Anne-Marie spent many years working with amazing artists at arts festivals all over Australia. She's been a freelance arts writer for the last 10 years and teaches journalism at Monash University.

Anne-Marie Peard

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