Michelle Law is tired of bearing the emotional burdens and everyday racial and sexist microaggressions that come with being an Asian-Australian woman. “When I was working in retail, customers were surprised that I had an Australian accent, or constantly asking you where you’re from. Then you having to say, ‘Sunshine Coast’, and then them asking, ‘Where are you really from?,’” Law says with a grim laugh. “Then you asking them: ‘Where are you really from?.’”
Her play, Single Asian Female premieres at Belvoir this month and is the first Australian mainstage play to feature three Asian leads. It centres around the women in a Chinese family, each facing their own challenges. The youngest daughter, Mei, grapples with her identity as the only Asian at her school, and the eldest daughter, Zoe, must choose between her career and family. Their mother, Pearl, struggles to overcome the cultural and generational differences between herself and her daughters.
While Law insists the play isn’t autobiographical (her life has previously been the subject of her brother Benjamin Law’s SBS comedy The Family Law), she acknowledges that her characters face similar cultural conflicts to those she encountered growing up Chinese in Queensland.
And Law still sees a fair bit of herself in Mei. “She’s really struggling between her Chinese identity but also really wanting to fit in… and also this idea of, ‘Who actually am I?’ She has never really been given the opportunity to explore that because she lives in this Chinese-family world; but then at school she’s bullied for being Chinese. But she feels white. It is a dichotomous existence that I think a lot of Asian-Australian people grapple with, because you feel like you occupy this in-between space.”
Stories that deal with Asian identity are not a common sight for the Australian stage and it was the Lotus Playwriting Project (run by Playwriting Australia and CAAP) that presented Law the opportunity to tell this unique, but still wholly universal story to Australian audiences. Law described theatregoers who attended the Brisbane run (her play previously premiered at La Boite Theatre Company to a sell-out season in 2017), as being “really wracked, because they had never seen a story like that before… It was really refreshing to see something new.”
Law thinks that might be because she employs comedy to commentate on serious and frequently political subjects. “I feel like people are more inclined to listen to what you have to say if you can make them laugh, as opposed to getting up on your soapbox and telling them what’s what,” she says, “If you can get them on your side and encourage them with empathy… they’re learning something but it is also really enjoyable as well.”
But most significantly, Law understands the importance of reflecting the diversity of modern society on stage, and the impact of her play in giving Asian-Australians the visible presence they deserve: “I think it’s really important because when you see yourself represented on stage, it really normalises your reality for you. When you see characters on TV or in theatre shows… I’m not so ‘other’ after all – [it’s] that feeling of being seen and acknowledged. I’m really hoping the play connects with people who don’t normally go to theatre or who aren’t normally part of this world – and I want it to be quite a welcoming experience.”
Single Asian Female is at Belvoir until March 25.
Need more theatre in your life? See our guide to the best theatre in Sydney this month.