Brisbane local treasure Michelle Law, co-author of Sh*t Asian Mothers Say
and regular at Frankie, has penned a play that’ll have you yowling. I was lucky enough to see it on an early Monday night preview, with La Boite’s Roundhouse sold out and packed half with high school students and half with Brisbane literary mob.
Image: Dylan Evans
Single Asian Female opens with a bang – it’s a mum doing karaoke on a table. Pearl Wong (Hsiao-Ling Tang, who really holds this show together) is a woman on the cusp of a new chapter in her life – she’s divorced the abusive husband who brought her to Australia and has the running of the family restaurant, The Golden Phoenix, all to herself. Mei (Courtney Stewart) is on the cusp of graduating high school and discovering a love of Jane Eyre – and is often torn between her Asian roots and fitting in with her peers. Older sister Zoe (Alex Lee) is forced back home from her old life in Brisbane and is struggling to balance a burgeoning career, pick through the dating pool, and keep her cool while living closely with her family again.
Pearl harbours a distressing secret, and we follow these three women desperate to take charge of their lives over two acts.
This show is loosely based on the author’s experiences growing up as one of the only young Asians in her Gold Coast community, and is a much-needed addition to the pool of truthful, original theatre in Brisbane in a time when many shows still don’t reflect the diversity of the talent operating. (A different local theatre company, for instance, had run its last production of Avenue Q, a show in which jokes based around the Japanese accent feature prominently, with an all-white cast.) In an Australia where Pauline Hanson (who famously bemoaned that we were being “swamped by Asians”) is still taken seriously, theatre like this is more important than ever.
I firmly believe that La Boite’s Roundhouse theatre is the best place to see a show in Brisbane, and this show uses it to its fullest potential, setting the forefront of the show in The Golden Palace itself, complete with real food, lanterns and a golden happy cat.(Don’t see the show if you’re hungry, like I did!)
Single Asian Female takes on racism, sexism, mental illness, reproductive rights, immigration law, sibling dynamics, and domestic abuse – but the story holds strong enough that it rarely feels soapboxy or cliched. When interval comes I see students frantically writing notes – I’m a little jealous of them. I can’t think of a better show to have to write an essay on. (Who wouldn’t want to identify the five elements of drama in Tina Area karaoke, simulated cunnilngus and a pop-up toilet?)
There are rare perfect moments in theatre when real life is mirrored so perfectly you can feel the audience smacking their lips and going “yes!” – and many of these happen in the first ten minutes of the play. Later, as the conflict rises to a head, the audience shifts and twists and gasps as one – “Can you believe that just happened?”
Small things in this show, like drinking hot water instead of tea because you’ll stay up too late if you have tea, or that awful moment when your mouth’s too dry to perform oral sex, that establish Michelle Law and director Claire Christie as a keen observer of the poignant and the hilarious.
Supporting cast Emily Burton and Emily Vascotto were brilliant as a range of backup players, often some of the best-timed comic relief, though Vascotto’s vapid teen mean-girl character was arguably somewhat one-dimensional (although to be fair, some teenagers kind of…are).
It was joyous to see such wicked-funny women (and lone supporting player Patrick Jhanur) grace the stage and it’s wonderful that this badass play now heads the Google search predictions for “single Asian female” instead of searches from crusty old white men in coin-operated internet booths.
Single Asian Female plays the Roundhouse at La Boite until 4 March – more info here