"A play that feels like a huge fist-pump for Asian women."
What does it mean to be single, Asian and female in Australia? Michelle Law's debut play at Belvoir, Single Asian Female, answers some of these questions in a bracing, laugh-out-loud comedy gem - spotlighting on the Wongs, a Chinese family who run 'The Golden Phoenix' restaurant up on the Sunshine Coast.
In a brilliant opening monologue, Pearl, the matriarch of the Wong family, describes women in the modern age as having the world as their oyster. And indeed, in Law's show, the action focuses on Pearl and her two daughters, Mei and Zoe, as they navigate their different life-stages. But, the world isn't all that easy for these three women, placed centre-stage. Mei struggles with negotiating her Asian-Australian identity in a desire to fit in at her primarily-white high school. Zoe, on the other hand, faces the pressures of her professional music career, and questions her place as an Asian woman in the dating world. Meanwhile, Pearl waits to reveal a hidden family secret that threatens to tear the women apart, perhaps forever.
At the heart of it all, it is a first and second generation immigrant story that feels both timely and long overdue. Law's confident writing style brings insight into this story, while also not dodging the implications that come with being perceived as an outsider. Director Claire Christian tactfully directs Law's address of racial microaggressions and contradictions with a tongue-in-cheek astuteness and surprising lightness of touch. In one scene, Zoe is on a series of dates, confronting a predictable scattershot of questions about her identity and culture. It's a criticism of how subtle racism manifests in the most basic interactions, and Zoe's visible eye-roll and fourth-wall breaks make it easy for the audience to side with her, ridiculing the creepy white men and their offensive queries, those with yellow fever, and those bizarrely fixated with her naturally straight hair.
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But there are more than just self-identity themes at play in this whip-smart show that skillfully fuses the genres of drama and comedy. The relationships between family members ring with an authenticity that makes this story incredibly potent. In the display of a family's ups and downs, it hits familiar places: from sibling rivalry to the differing generational perspectives between parents and their children. And underpinning this complexity, both Law's fast-moving script and Christian's intimate direction elevate the sheer strength of family bonds. It is a moving exhibit of resilience and affection.
The performances in this production are close to note-perfect. Courtney Stewart's Mei imbues her teen character with a relatable adolescent quality, nailing the comedic timing in her whingy but also high-intensity emotional teen-state. The play presents elements of a coming-of-age tale too. Mei's white BFF, Katie (played endearingly by Emily Burton) obsessed but respectful of Asian culture (she will change your universe with her Miyazaki knowledge) adds a nice touch to the core of female relationships in the play. Alex Lee also masters Zoe's awkward humour, skillfully realising this character's determination for autonomy over her career and body. Hsiao-Ling Tang is magnetic - she delivers Pearl's brash candour with self-assurance, but also conjures the inner trauma that Pearl conceals behind closed doors.
The design elements function effectively with the story. Moe Assaad's set and costume design cleverly infuses the hybrid concoction of Chinese and Australian cultures, and Wil Hughes' music and sound design does so similarly. Keith Clark's lighting design works compellingly to hand each woman their own generous moment on stage.
Single Asian Female is a play that feels like a huge fist-pump for Asian women triumphing and supporting each other in their most difficult times. Law's show is not only a celebration of the diverse stories one yearns to see more of on our theatre stages, but it is - most importantly - an invigorating and exciting one. And there is nothing like a Tina Arena Chains karaoke number finish, rained by disco lights, to tell you just that.
Belvoir Theatre presents Single Asian Female until 25 Mar.