Monday, February 19, 2018

Single Asian Female

Photo by Daniel Boud

Belvoir presents a La Boite Theatre Company production SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE, by Michelle Law, in the Upstairs Belvoir Theatre, Belvoir St Surry Hills. 16 February - 25 March.

SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE, by Michelle Law, was first produced, after being commissioned, by the La Boîte Theatre Company, in Brisbane, in 2017, and has been revived for this Sydney season at the invitation of the Belvoir Company. The work was developed with the assistance of the Lotus Playwriting Project, an initiative of Playwriting Australia and Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (formerly Performance 4a).

A family of females have been abandoned by the husband and father figure. Mother, Pearl (Hsiao-Ling Tang), runs the family restaurant, The Golden Phoenix, to support her two daughters through the 'minefields' of the Australian/Asian culture. Zoe (Alex Lee), the eldest, 29, pursuing a professional music career (the violin) suffering from high anxiety, and Mei (Courtney Sewat), in her last year of High School, grappling with the 'politics' of exams, outside social expectations and family loyalties. Pearl, too, has an imminent personal crisis of some importance to solve, which is unknown to her daughters. In affect then, we have three Single Asian Females, each with a life trajectory crisis of their own as well as the united family Asian/Australian one. It is palpably shown in the last moments of the Act One dimming of the lights into the interval. The theme 'song' of these women is parodied in a karaoke rendition of Gloria Gaynor's I WILL SURVIVE.

Michelle Law in the program notes tells us that in her theatre going experiences she has liked to watch the audience identify with the 'people' of a play and see them being connected and validated -
something I rarely experience and (that) makes me deeply envious. Who knew that being made to feel unwelcome and invisible in my own country was something that extended to the art I consumed. I would leave the shows feeling lonely. ... I want SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE to play a small role in changing that for people like me. People of colour. Women. Migrants. Outliers. The Other. This show is a love letter to them. And I want those in positions of privilege to gain some new insights: namely that we are here, we have been listening, and that now it is our turn to speak. But above all, I want the audience to be entertained. These are difficult issues to dissect, but that doesn't mean we can't have lots of fun unpacking them along the way.

Says the Director, Claire Christian:
There is no denying that Michelle Law and this play are special. It feels special because it is real. ... It feels special because it's important. It's important that we can tell stories that privilege the other, that reflect the actual Australian society we live in. ... SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE gives voice to the voiceless and talks about race and gender in ways we don't. In ways that we should; in honest, vulnerable and angry ways that reflects what is really going on. But, most importantly, this play is special because it's about women, it's written by a woman, and it is masterfully performed by women. Funny women. I know right? Who knew that women could be funny.
On a Set Design by Moe Assad, that captures a rundown restaurant and upstairs flat (apartment), we watch these three women interact in familial ways with each other and with the outside world. The outside world for all is, especially, the invisible, father figure. For Pearl, it is, as well, the Australian Immigration Department. For Zoe, it is her career and sex life which concentrates to a burgeoning relationship with Paul (Patrick Jhanur). For Mei, it is her coming-of-age in the last cycle of high school, navigating her relationships with the 'good' girls, represented by Katie (Emily Burton), and the 'mean' girls, represented by Lana (Lucy Heffernan).
Ms Law has written characters that are broad brushed 'dramedy' types as they investigate the cliches of everyday family 'clashes' between themselves, and the thoughtless, ignorant and discriminatory attitude of the community of the 'outside'. In response to the text, Ms Christian has encouraged, elicited, a broadly drawn comic style, reminiscent of some 80's television comedies, from her actors, which has a 'look'/'feel' of extreme confidence. The actors have a honed sense of their relationships and the comic in the writing - they inhabit the characters with great playful ease - it seems it is their shared sense of humour that gets these characters through their travails.

We are told in the program blurb that Michelle Law's play, SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE, is 'fierce and funny, as it is vital. It's Australian domesticity like you've never seen before.' And, you know, it is funny in a 'comic book' way and does have a chaotic, bubbly, vitality. However, the vitality is neither strange nor new and the domesticity is not too unfamiliar and one really wished that there was more ferocity in the observation of the different 'given circumstances' of this Asian Australian experience that is presented in this play and production.

One reflects on the wonder of the Tony Ayres' film, THE HOME SONG STORIES (2007), and its insights into the Asian-Australian family experience and the comparison between the two, despite the passing of ten years, is one to take a pause over. Ms Law has written comic novel and for comic anthologies and has won a Australian Writers' Guild Award AWGIE award for her screenwriting work. Whether the Writer and Director has achieved their above stated objectives sufficiently is for you to go see.

SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE is Ms Law's debut (first) play.

1 comment:

John Grinston said...

The play begins with a brilliant flourish, as Pearl, up high on a table and delighting at this moment in the spotlight, belts out her revised-lyrics, joyously ironic version of "I Will Survive". The audience is with her all the way - and I'm guessing she didn't lose anyone over the ensuing two hours. You are right, Kevin, in likening her appeal - her mix of unflagging optimism, affectionate scolding of her daughters and determination in the face of setbacks - to that of the heroines of well-loved tv sit-coms. And when the clowning and carry-on stops, and harder 'truths' come to the fore, Hsaio-Ling Tang has the skill to hold us just as tight. There was a stretch early in the piece when I thought the play best suited for readers of 'Dolly', and at times the show gets noisy and screechy and one wishes teenagers would just grow up faster. BUT...the play becomes a very enjoyable occasion, the high spirits irresistible. I look forward to seeing these actors again, especially the wonderful Ms Tang.