reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Single Asian Female by Michelle Law
Auckland Theatre Company
Auckland Waterfront Theatre
Until May 15
Reviewed by John Daly-Peoples
Single Asian Female opens with a karaoke style version of Gloria Gaynor’s “I will survive”, the song about the discovery of personal strength following a devastating breakup. It is sung by Pearl (Kat Tsz Hung), the owner of The Golden Phoenix a Chinese restaurant, newly divorced and facing an uncertain future.
The song is not just an anthem for Pearl and her two daughters Zoe (Xana Tang) and Mei (Bridget Wong), it also applies for the survival of Chinese culture.
In following the lives of the three Asian women the play explores the various dimension of assimilation, cultural clash and cross-cultural identity and while the play is originally Australian it has been cleverly adapted with a few local political and social references.
This black comedy presents much of the tensions and conflicts through the lives of the two girls. The older daughter Zoe has just moved back to the family home above the restaurant after Pearl has sold her apartment. She is busy negotiating her musical career, dating, her relationship with her sister and mother as well as a possible pregnancy.
Mei is in her last year of high school, dealing with peer pressure, her white girl friends – the sympathetic Katie (Olivia Parker) and cynical, image-focused Lana (Holly Stokes) while trying to integrate her Chinese self into white society. Her major problem is around the forthcoming Formal, the end of year school ball. This is highlighted by what to wear – the lovely white dress she has bought or her mother’s beloved cheongsam. For the after-dance function her mother is arranging she wants to have a “normal“ party and “normal food” and no chinglish.
Much of the comedy uses the familiar tropes about the outsider “Where do you come from” and there is a lot of self-deprecating humour with a mixture of stand-up comedian gags, pop psychology and fortune cookie style jokes.
The culture clash is also seen in Mei’s attempt to rid herself of all her Chinese possessions and clothes such as her pink jelly shoes much to the amazement of Katie who sees them as cool.
As the writer Michelle Law has noted the play is very much a love letter to people of colour, migrants and outliers but the other dominant aspects and more universal thing about the work is the relationship between mothers and daughters. Pearl may be the caring, devoted mother but she is also a Dragon Mother who is full of advice on all topics. As Zoe notes, she could never tell her mother about an abortion as “She would never stop talking to me”.
The play touches on a arrange of social issues – privilege, power, and position, racism the position of women in traditional Chinese society, feminism and the pressures on young women to conform.
Kat Tsz Hung as Pearl provides a vibrant presence in her deliveries, singing and acting while Xana Tang and Bridget Wong offer stereotypes with a nicely controlled edginess.
The play is a bit long and could have a much tighter narrative. A shortened version would have made more dramatic impact, but the opening night audience was entranced and totally engaged so that at times it felt as though we were all sitting there in the Golden Phoenix.