“At its heart it’s a story about family, but it’s also very deeply about what it means to be a woman and Asian and single in Australia at this time.” That’s how writer Michelle Law described her play Single Asian Female to Broadsheet ahead of its premiere in Brisbane in 2017.
It’s taken a while to get to Adelaide, with sold-out seasons in Sydney and Melbourne in between. That and the pandemic, which thwarted its intended 2020 run with the State Theatre Company of South Australia. While the play, which is having a second go of it next month at the Dunstan Playhouse, remains largely the same as in earlier seasons, the world around it has certainly changed, making its themes, in particular anti-Asian racism, as timely as ever. Since Covid, Asian Australians have endured another aggressive wave of racist insults and violence, which still continues.
“The play is more pertinent than ever in that sense,” Law tells Broadsheet ahead of its 2022 run, which comes to Adelaide as part of OzAsia Festival, in association with State Theatre Company, next month.
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It’s something of a full circle moment: OzAsia director Annette Shun Wah is also the executive producer of Contemporary Asian Australian Performance (CAAP), where she develops new work by Asian Australian artists and incubates emerging talent. And it’s through a CAAP playwriting initiative that Law developed Single Asian Female all those years ago.
“Annette is truly the fairy godmother of Asian theatre in Australia. If it weren’t for initiatives facilitated by CAAP, there would have been no opportunity for Single Asian Female to be developed, let alone staged,” says Law.
The award-winning author, playwright and actor is known for her searing, hilarious takes on often-serious topics. (She co-authored a book with her brother Benjamin titled Sh-t Asian Mothers Say and co-wrote the SBS show Homecoming Queens. Her latest book is Asian Girls Are Going Places: How To Navigate the World as an Asian Woman Today.) In Single Asian Female, she skewers race and gender in Australia through the lens of the whip-smart Wong family – a mother, Pearl, and her daughters Zoe and Mei – who run a suburban Sunshine Coast Chinese restaurant.
“I always love to write shows that people go in expecting a laugh-out-loud experience, which they do get, but come out sucker-punched and moved,” says Law.
“All three women are at a crux in their lives where things are about to change,” she continues. “Pearl is about to experience an empty nest for the first time and she’s feeling disconnected from her daughters, who are Australian-born. So she’s feeling a cultural as well as a generational divide to them. Zoe is feeling like she’s having to decide between having family and having career. And Mei, the youngest daughter, is about to finish high school. She’s ashamed of her cultural heritage and wanting to deny who she is in order to fit in.
“Each of them is harbouring a secret and trying to navigate those secrets in isolation from each other. They’re also all dealing with labels and what it means to be single, Asian and a woman in Australia.
“When my sister first saw it, she was like, ‘I see you in all the characters’,” Law continues. “So parts of me and my world views are in each of them, but they’re each inspired by strong, funny, resilient Asian women I know, whether they’re friends or family, or people I’ve read about, and the spirit of … persisting against the odds. And trying to make a path for yourself and a way forward despite things being stacked against you.”
The all-new production will be staged under the direction of Adelaide’s Nescha Jelk, who has assembled a cast featuring Fiona Choi (who starred in The Family Law, written by Law's brother Ben) and Adelaide’s Juanita Navas-Nguyen (Eureka Day, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?) and Elvy-Lee Quici in her mainstage debut.
“It is an unbelievable joy and privilege to see Single Asian Female brought back to life with a fresh set of faces and voices, so many of whom I’ve long admired,” says Law, who also had a hand in selecting the cast. “We were searching for people whose spirit would serve the heart of the show – which is that it’s quite a wholesome, loving unicorn of a show. People come out of it feeling quite uplifted and connected to each other, which is what you want out of theatre.”
Law also wrote the play out of a desire to offer representation to audience members who seldom see themselves on screen and stage. “I’m hoping … that people who come from marginalised backgrounds can feel connected to the characters and experience seeing themselves on stage – that was something I never experienced. I would feel envious of audience members who were empathising so strongly with characters and worlds they saw unfolding on stage. The only experience I did have was seeing Miss Saigon in high school, which is not a three-dimensional story for its Asian characters.
“When audiences came to see Single Asian Female for the first time it was quite revelatory, and it was a special moment in time.”
Single Asian Female will run from November 4–19 at Dunstan Playhouse. Tickets are available online.