SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE
SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE, La Boîte Brisbane and Belvoir at Upstairs, Belvoir, 16 February-25 March 2018. Photography by Dan Boud: above - Alex Lee and Hsiao-Liang Tang; below - Courtney Stewart and Alex Lee; below again - Emily Burton and Courtney Stewart
Michelle Law’s debut play is Belvoir’s third recent import from Brisbane and it’s yet another thrilling leap into what really shouldn’t be the unknown: one of Australia’s minority cultures. In 2017 we discovered the African community in Prizefighter and in January, the world of the Torres Straits in My Name is Jimi. Now it’s a family comedy-drama from a Chinese-Australian perspective.
In many ways – particularly plot lines and archetypal characters – Single Asian Female is as familiar as Home and Away, but Law’s writer’s notes make it very clear why and how it isn’t: “Whenever I see theatre in Australia I like to watch the people in the audience. They sigh, laugh and cry with recognition as the story unfolding on stage touches them, connects them, and validates their existence — something I rarely experience and makes me deeply envious. Who knew that being made to feel unwelcome and invisible in my own country was something that also extended to the art I consumed. I would leave shows feeling very alone.”
She’s changed all that in an acutely cute form. Single Asian Female (a joke, Beryl) opens as Sydney is celebrating Chinese New Year (of the Dog) and Belvoir’s foyer is decorated with traditional red paper lanterns; and the stage is transformed into one of those comfortably daggy Chinese restaurants of our childhoods (set and costume design: Moe Assaad, lighting: Keith Clark).
Pearl (Hsiao-Liang Tang) is celebrating her divorce from a ne’er-do-well husband with a burst of tabletop karaoke. “I Will Survive...” she sings defiantly to a frisson of sympathy and recognition from many women in the audience. Some things transcend race and culture and being a woman struggling to run a business, a home and raise two children while hubby does his thing (a mistress) elsewhere is one of them. And coincidentally, it’s making national and worldwide headlines at the moment as Barnaby “Sanctity of Marriage” Joyce himself imitates a large red paper lantern.
Pearl’s immediate concerns, however, are her two daughters: cantankerous teenage schoolgirl Mei (a credibly bratty Courtney Stewart) and Zoe (funny, nuanced Alex Lee), a violinist doing the rounds of orchestra auditions. They live above the restaurant – on the Sunshine Coast – and Zoe has come home because her mother has sold the investment apartment in Brisbane. Typically Australian, the girls’ response is not to wonder why and whether their mother needs help, but to bemoan the awful inconvenience that’s now befallen them.
The first half (of a too long 2.5 hour show including interval) is a series of scenes depicting the day to day trials and tribulations of the family. Mei’s school friends hang out in her bedroom – her bestie, the gawky Katie (hilarious Emily Burton) and the pouty class beeyatch Lana (knock-out Lucy Heffernan). Mei and Zoe squabble like the true snarky sisters they are and when not fending off a flouncing Mei, Zoe tries to date. Does she find them on “Tine-der”? asks her strenuously hip mother.
Heffernan and Burton also take on the brief but telling roles of Zoe’s disastrous dates – “so, where d’you really come from?” And having the two young women play a pair of bogan blokes is a nicely nerve-jangling decision. Casual everyday racism is as prevalent in the play as soy sauce on a restaurant table, but what an inevitably predominantly white audience might find eye-opening is that Michelle Law isn’t shy to include the reverse. As well as a neat potshot at Pauline Hanson in the first five minutes, her race sister is revealed as the matriarch Pearl – as bigoted as any member of One Nation, albeit from the other side of the sweet and sour pork.
When Zoe eventually finds a boyfriend he turns out to be an idealistic immigration lawyer, Paul, (gorgeous token male Patrick Jhanur). And if this is sounding a bit too Marvel Comics-coincidental, you perhaps should take into account the playwright’s stated love of manga star Doraemon, whose giant head is a feature of Mei’s bedroom. On the other hand, Mei is sufficiently pained by her daily deal of racial slurs and stereotyping to be seen, early on, stuffing all her overly-ethnic belongings into a giant carrier bag to be chucked out. Life’s not all an Aussie equivalent of a witty yet witless At Home With The Kumars.
[SPOILER ALERT] The second half takes a darker, unpredictable turn as Pearl’s secret emerges in some excellent extended and heartfelt writing and characterisation (direction: Claire Christian). I’d put money on most of the audience comfortably if sadly expecting her to announce she has terminal cancer. However, Hsiao-Liang Tang’s already touching performance deepens and grows as we and her daughters learn she has fallen foul of Australia’s immigration apparatus. She is about to be deported.
To this point, the protagonists of Single Asian Female have been skipping along like a mob of ceremonial dragons and lions – noisy, fun, gaudy and occasionally a bit scary and irascible. But this revelation indicates there is much more beneath the colourful surface. Pearl’s fate is awful, truthful, shaming and all too plausibly 21st century Australian.
In essence, this is where the story really starts; the rest is somewhat self-indulgent, occasionally repetitive and way too Upper Middle Bogan. And unfortunately, the dreadful development comes close to the end with nowhere to go, and the end itself is a damp firecracker: it fizzles rather than explodes. Nevertheless, this is Michelle Law’s first play and her potential is exciting; it’s a first in other ways too and what she does next (preferably with a strong dramaturg) is to be much anticipated. Recommended.