Single Asian Female
La Boite Theatre Company
La Boite Roundhouse Theatre
February 11 – March 4 2017
Reviewed by Xanthe Coward
things have to change…
Single Asian Female gives a voice to the voiceless and talks about race and gender in ways we often don’t.
– Director, Claire Christian
Single. Asian. Female. It’s a joke because, remember the film? But it’s no joke that the truths shared in Michelle Law’s searingly honest and delightfully funny debut are instantly, regrettably, familiar to us. Of course, a lifetime of being on the receiving end means the racial slurs and assumptions to which this piece gives voice and context, are more familiar to some than others. It’s a timely, nicely conceived work, bold and furious and funny, and while it can do with a more discerning dramaturgical touch, on its first outing Single Asian Female wins the open hearts and minds of audiences and artists. Like Future D. Fidel’s unforgettable Prize Fighter, Law’s contemporary timeless story, inspired by aspects of her own, will rightly take its place in this country’s canon of works; it’s not only highly entertaining and moving, but also, another opportunity to open up our performance spaces and school curriculum to people of colour.
La Boite is employing all the colours, telling all the stories.
I read something about someone wanting to get rid of a particular story. But why would anyone feel the need to do that? Acts of destruction waste so much energy. Challenging and questioning the dominant myth may be useful, but losing it from the conversation altogether? Not so much. It’s true that some stories are lost along the way, but they’re eventually uncovered, or remembered, or replaced by another version that has the same substance and soul message. This is why we persist with telling them, writing them down, putting them on the stage and screen… Isn’t it vital to keep the stories, to share them and not destroy them or discard them just because someone suddenly decides they don’t appear to be relevant to a particular group of people? The stories are another group’s stories. It doesn’t mean they have no value for you, and it certainly doesn’t mean they were created with an intent to offend or to bury any other stories past, present or future, it simply means they’ve come from someone else in another place at a particular time and you have the choice, always, to recognise any value in them from your unique personal and cultural perspective. And to continue to contribute your own version of events. Go on, get creating rather than destroying.
Let’s keep all the stories and concentrate our efforts on contributing more stories. Stories are for sharing. So we hold space for all of them. There is enough space.
This production, this story, is another hammer, which La Boite rightly prides itself on wielding (this company too, sans hashtag, is all about leading from Queensland) and it will go a long way in continuing to shape our shared reality.
These are the stories that are with us and amongst us.
– La Boite Theatre Company Artistic Director, Todd MacDonald
There’s nothing to fault in the wonderful, easeful performances of the three leading ladies, each a fiercely “strong woman”, firm in her resolve to thrive, and funny in her unapologetically wry take on so many situations, which we find equally appalling and amusing. Director, Claire Christian, gives each situation to us straight, trusting the source and allowing her actors to play with the material, resulting in some of the sharpest, most original comedy of the year.
Lana: WHAT ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR EYES? THEY LOOK HUGE.
Mei: OH … THANK YOU.
In a complex and appropriately cluttered and homely, surprisingly functional multi-level space designed by Moe Assad and lit by Keith Clark, the women revolve around each other and their Golden Phoenix Chinese Restaurant (amusingly, for long-term Sunshine Coast residents, located in Nambour, but it could be anywhere), which will bring about either fortune or disaster in the end. La Boite feels as festive as ever, with Chinese lanterns hanging in the foyer and the red carpet rolled out for opening night. There’s even cabaret style restaurant seating available inside the theatre so some audience members really get to feel a part of the action, a clever, inclusive design element. We delight in picking up our tickets (for the tiered section) encased in a shiny red and gold embossed envelope before the show, and cracking open our fortune cookies after it.
The Wong family women are real to me because they were inspired by people I know: generous, assertive, resilient women who hold the world on their shoulders.
– Writer, Michelle Law
Alex Lee’s Zoe is a superb realisation of the eldest daughter, harnessing the extreme emotions of a young, talented, ambitious creative soul suffering from anxiety, having yet to secure a place in the world outside of her mother’s realm and representing not just Asian young adults but every young woman everywhere. I’d love to see Lee’s solo show sometime – how could I not? It’s called I’m Eating Peanut Butter In The Shower Because I’m Sad And You’e Not The Boss of Me. Lee is a delight.
Courtney Stewart’s Mei is the younger, impressionable and eternally frustrated, just-wanna-finish-school-and-go-to-the-formal eye rolling second child, on the verge of finding out for herself the truth about her father’s character and her own. (Interestingly, this dad is unseen and painted as the devil, having selfishly, callously caused every problem faced by the family). Stewart was an inspired inclusion in last year’s developmental showing of Soi Cowboy, a commissioned Brisbane Powerhouse production, which we’re sure to hear more about this year.
Hsiao-Ling Tang is an ideal Pearl with her frantic gestures juxtaposed against complete stillness (a sense of the sacred self knowledge coming up against the contemporary overculture’s unachievable expectations), her stubborn use of Chinglish and her insistence that shoes be taken off inside the house (and that Chinese snacks be available to friends during study group – how embarrassing – hilarious). Her tiger mother bouts of intense frustration and raw anger at something unseen prompt us to sit up in surprise and sadness and awe before settling back into a place between laughter and tears (of recognition, sympathy, empathy), when she finally reveals the secret that could be the family’s undoing… Tang will appear later in the year in the world premiere of Michele Lee’s Rice, the winner of the Queensland Premier’s 2016 Drama Award, another must-see.
These women, as if they’d been working together for some time already, convey genuine affection and concern for each other. The connections are real, making their stories completely relatable, regardless of our cultural background, a fly-on-the-wall shared experience. Such a magical thing, live theatre…
Emily Burton is perhaps the most endearing performer I’ve seen on a Brisbane stage (Dash Kruck and Tom Oliver up there also). I adore her, and much more so when she’s perfectly cast, as she is here, as Mei’s lanky, daggy, wannabe Asian misfit friend, Katie. She’s got a bohemian willowy geeky tomboy cosplay comical sad panda thing going on and it works superbly as a foil to mean girl Lana’s constant digs, and Mei’s reluctant rebelliousness and her insecurities about who she thinks she wants to be. A scene in which we see Mei trapped between Katie’s longstanding friendship and Lana’s passive aggressive popularity test is so uncomfortable to watch; it’s probably stingingly familiar to most of us if we’re honest, as is Mei’s choice in the moment and Katie’s reaction. Like similar moments, it could be overplayed but Burton finds a balance between the truth of the character and the tragicomedy of the situation.
Patrick Jhanur is just gorgeous as Paul. His gentleness though, his subtleties (and some of his words), are at risk of becoming lost in the noise and pace of the women’s world. This is quite probably a deliberate thing and will be more astutely balanced/managed as the season continues. The self conscious banter between he and Zoe is delightful, making us squirm and giggle and smile, and hope that everything will work out for these two. But is this character just the token male, included as a woman might be, to fit that space in a play populated with men, penned by a man? I don’t think so. As we see during a discussion about the chance to have a child, with vulnerability and a tenderness not always afforded a male character, Jhanur steps up for this role, and perhaps there is simply, gradually, a little more flesh to be added to its bones.
Emily Vascotto has vibrant, wicked, gleeful Isla Fischer/Lizzie Moore energy and if you don’t know our Lizzie Moore, you really ought to get out…more. A real-life red-headed Bratz Doll, Vascotto embodies the type I’d warn my daughter about, as in, keep your friends close and keep that one closer. With less experience on stage than the other girls but with no less sass, Vascotto walks a fine comical line between being immediately recognisable and so much larger than life that we lose sight of who Lana really is. I think she’ll settle into this role during the season and certainly, will do so without the vignettes involving her character losing any momentum. At least, let’s hope not, with some momentum lacking on opening night. (I think we accept that this is typical of an opening night performance and later, we’re unsurprised by reports of a cracking pace). The occasional lag seems due to The Family Law style episodic structure, each chapter landing with an unapologetically political or moral thud. Like, BOOM. It’s never too much but it’s almost too much at once; it’s almost overwhelming, but then, the reality is that life IS overwhelming. There IS this much blatant racism to deal with in this country, every day. We have ALL of these issues to consider, and more.
One has to write what one sees, what one feels, truthfully, sincerely.
– Anton Chekhov
To finish with Tina Arena’s Chains is such a great gimmick (and these girls can really sing it!), but it’s not my favourite closing number. I feel we should be singing along with something…upbeat. Karaoke is gold and if you promise it you need to deliver on it, just as the slinky has its moment on the stairs. (Gun. Bang. Etcetera.)
In the spirit of the current trend to make a short show a good show, it’s worth noting that a discerning dramaturg might take a red pen to the text, make more efficient use of the more stylised moments (a raw, real look at online dating and the daughters’ stories being taken into account by the end), and make it a 90-minute no-interval knockout…but think about that. Would we have quite as much to digest or to discuss? Would we feel as deeply about any of the characters without the time to meander through their world with them? The rich texture of this tale is in its detail and while I’d often prefer to get home earlier (but I know, it’s so interesting to stay for speeches too, so I usually do), by the same token I’d love to see the full length production, as it stands, return with yum cha at interval and actual karaoke afterwards. In fact, let’s make the food together. It’s perfect festival fare.
In the meantime, don’t miss seeing Michelle Law’s personal-universal play just the way it is, at La Boite’s Roundhouse. Don’t miss the opportunity to take part in our nation’s most pressing conversation. Don’t miss being part of the cultural change, the global shift; the impetus behind powerful art and empowered people.
Single Asian Female is the baton being passed on. Don’t drop it or decline to take it. Don’t be a dickhead. Don’t be that (white) guy.