Like many others in her generation, Michele Lee grew up wondering why she wasn’t seeing herself reflected on Australian screens and stages. She didn’t stand out on the street, so why was there a distinct lack of Asian-Australian faces in local theatre and TV?
A decade later this self-described “Asian-Australian playwright and theatre-maker” has hit the jackpot: her first mainstage production in not one but two states.
Winner of the 2016–17 Queensland Premier’s Drama Award, Lee’s Rice comes to Sydney from a sell-out season at Queensland Theatre. “There was an impetus to create a play like this where the two protagonists are women of colour,” she says.
Rice is the story of Nisha, an aggressively ambitious and successful young businesswoman who is about to pull off the deal of the century: selling rice to India. Yvette is the office’s world-weary Chinese cleaner who has seen Nisha’s type before but has her own problems with her troublesome daughter, who is in legal strife for pelting the Coles boss with rotting vegetables. It is a humorous, whip-smart and touching play.
Considering half of all Australians now have one parent born overseas, it’s astonishing that it is still unusual to see two Asian-Australian actors on stage. Lee has written multiple roles for actors Kristy Best and Hsiao-Ling Tang who play the Indian and Chinese lead roles, but also those of an American official, a warehouse owner and a moody teen.
“It’s a statement about the types of roles Asian actors can play,” Lee says. “I’m not advocating we don’t ever play roles that are clearly Indian or Laotian or whatever but that the roles are complex and there’s variety.”
Things are changing slowly – popular TV series The Family Law is now in its second season and actors such as Anthony Brandon Wong, Ursula Mills and Kaeng Chan are landing more roles, but it’s taking time.
“I think Australia is kind of racist in certain ways, systemically and structurally. There’s a long history of it,” says Lee, pointing out the White Australia Policy was only phased out in the early 1970s. “Historically it was hard for non-Anglo people to take up space in this country.”
Lee’s generation is determined to change that. “There’s more of a critical mass where my generation is concerned because Asian-Australian artists and writers are wanting to tell their stories; we’re a generation who have grown up in the ’80s and ’90s and gone, ‘Hey I’m not really here on stage and screen, I want to see myself represented’.”
Spearheaded by Annette Shun Wah, Contemporary Asian Australian Performance has partnered with Playwriting Australia to encourage more Asian-Australian voices to write for theatre. This year alone there are four mainstage productions: Michelle Law’s Single Asian Female at Brisbane’s La Boite, Disapol “Oakkie” Savetsila’s Australian Graffiti at the Sydney Theatre Company and Merlynn Tong’s Blue Bones at the Brisbane Powerhouse.
Lee also has a second mainstage commission for 2018, a factor she partly attributes to a younger generation of artistic directors such as QT’s Sam Strong, Malthouse Theatre’s Matt Lutton and STC’s Kip Williams. “The decision makers, while they’re not Asian-Australian, are of a generation where they’re asking where the stories are. I’m not sure the STC would have picked up my play five years ago.”
Griffin artistic director and Rice director Lee Lewis is aware of the burden for playwrights if they are pigeonholed.
“There’s a lot of pressure on playwrights writing about different ethnicities to write ‘the definitive play’. There’s been pressure on Michele to write the best play ever about Asian-Australian people and that’s just not fair. Rice is just a good play,” Lewis says, pointing out that it’s about family relationships and the question of cultural loss as you move countries, which speaks to anyone from a migrant background.
“That’s a more universal story in Australia now as the numbers shift; 20 years ago that wasn’t a dominant story but now it is. Most of our population has a grandparent from another part of the planet. That’s actually the Australian story.”
As the director of a theatre company dedicated to supporting new Australian plays, Lewis is hopeful we will begin seeing more stories like Lee’s, and more colour-conscious casting. “New plays are unformed territory and all these things should be at the heart of what we’re doing. We want to be in the middle of these conversations because that’s the life everybody has.”
A co-production between Griffin Theatre Company and Queensland Theatre, Rice runs at Griffin from July 28 to August 26.