Single Asian Female is the debut play of Michelle Law, an accomplished writer across many media. A year ago, the play had its premiere in Brisbane, produced by La Boite Theatre Company, and it’s just arrived at Belvoir for its first Sydney outing.
Single Asian Female gives Australian audiences a chance to see characters it rarely sees represented on stage – migrant Australians. It’s an insight into a family that has come to our shores seeking a better life; people who work tirelessly to contribute to Australian society; and people who face daily struggles many of us don’t know or can’t begin to understand.
The play is the story of the Wong family, who run a passé Chinese restaurant on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast. There’s Pearl (Hsiao-Ling Tang), a woman in her fifties who arrived in Australia from Hong Kong 30 years ago. While she’s been separated from her abusive husband for some time, her divorce has only just become official at the time we’re introduced to her, and she’s in the mood to celebrate (serenading us with a rendition of Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’.) It appears that Pearl is very much looking forward to the next chapter of her life. But, at the same time, there are considerable challenges confronting her, including keeping the restaurant afloat and, more importantly, nurturing her relationship with each of her two daughters, who rail against their Chinese roots to varying degrees.
Pearl’s oldest daughter and golden child, Zoe (Alex Lee), is a talented musician on the cusp of 30, seeking to secure an orchestral job. But she also has a neurotic side and suffers panic attacks, which she keeps hidden from her mother. Meanwhile, Pearl’s 17-year-old daughter, Mei (Courtney Stewart), is openly embarrassed by her Chinese family and is desperate to anglicise herself as much as she is able. She’s often at odds with her mother and deeply misses her father.
But the daily squabbles about trivial issues quickly fall by the wayside when genuine trouble presents. For some time, Pearl has been concealing something significant from her daughters, a matter that is forced into the open by circumstance. What emerges is something that threatens the family’s continued existence and pulls sharply into focus for Zoe and Mei, what truly matters.
Single Asian Female is refreshing, moving, thought-provoking, and very funny. One of the most enjoyable and impacting aspects of Law’s play is its ability, in telling a story about non-anglo Australia, to demonstrate the like qualities we all share and the kinds of ties that can bind us (even down to a love of Tina Arena’s back catalogue!)
As well as excellent direction and staging by Claire Christian, who makes tremendous use of Moe Assaad’s set, the six-member cast is superb. Tang is endearing from her opening notes of ‘I Will Survive’ as the resilient, thick-skinned and loving mother, who continues to face cultural obstacles, has no aversion to using colourful language, and lives to provide her children a life better than her own. It’s a wonderful performance.
Similarly, Lee is impressive in portraying an intelligent young woman struggling to straddle the realities of modern life while also trying to appease her mother and meet her expectations. Stewart’s Mei is fittingly spirited and stubborn; she is a recognisable teenager determined to carve out her own identity and rebel against her mother’s vision for her. As well as delivering commendable individual characters, there is a chemistry between Tang, Lee and Stewart that makes the trio a totally believable family unit.
Strong support is offered by Emily Burton, playing Mei’s nerdy but loyal friend, Katie; Patrick Jhanur, who portrays a caring young lawyer who comes into Zoe’s life; and Lucy Heffernan as Lana, a dubious friend of Mei’s who shows herself to be more trouble than she’s worth.
Law’s Single Asian Female points to the plight of those who face challenges daily that are foreign to those more entrenched in the Australian community. It’s a timely piece, given the current political climate in which Pauline Hanson has found a second wind and favours a more homogenous view of migrant Australia. Above all else, Law reminds us that Australia is a composite of diverse people, and there are many stories yet to be told – and deserving of a place – on our stages.
SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 25 March, 2018
Venue: Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444