At first glance, Single Asian Female is a comedy drama about a divorced Chinese woman called Pearl who is trying to raise her two New Zealand born daughters by herself. She owns a restaurant and the play opens with her giving a rousing karaoke rendition of the torch-song I Will Survive. It is an uproariously funny and acidic performance where she pours scorn on her ex and uses the anthem to extol her own strength as a woman – determined to survive and to instil those values into her children.
The girls are Zoe, a music student, and the younger Mei. It soon becomes clear though that while born in this country, both are struggling to navigate the particular issue of being seen as foreigners in the land of their birth.
The result is trauma, especially for Mei. She is so desperate to fit in with the white girls at school she angrily shuns the cultural trappings that show her to be foreign. She wants to avoid Chinese food, clothing and even her beloved teddy bear.
Ultimately, this leads to a frightful argument with her mother who is determined to maintain Mei’s links to her heritage. In an incredibly powerful moment Pearl angry shouts what is the play’s most illuminating piece of dialogue:
“You should be angry with the people who make you feel ashamed.”
It is an electrifying moment that transforms the scene from a simple family spat to a vitriolic polemic against societal attitudes towards anyone who is different.
The play cleverly pokes fun at both Chinese and pakeha culture in New Zealand. Sometimes the references are stereotypic but they are acutely accurate in pointing out the underlying attitudes and values in each society.
As funny as it is though, Single Asian Female is not afraid of the dark and provides some deeply shocking dialogue that exposes the murkier side of humanity – the secrets, the lies, the hidden violence, and the feelings of desperation many of us have.
But laughter is never far away in this play and difficult confronting moments are followed by bitingly witty one liners and hilarious send ups. This doesn’t diminish the heavier moments, rather, it gives us time to breath, and appreciate that this is actually how relationships work.
Playwright Michelle Law’s aim was to produce a work that went beyond the stereotypes and sexualised portrayals of Asian women in Western theatre, film, and television and instead present real stories that reflect her culture and the issues that they face in other places.
Certainly the prejudice and at times, violence, aimed at Asian communities in Australia and New Zealand exists. The play does not shy away from criticising that as well as taking highly amusing pot shots at the eccentricities of western culture.
But what is abundantly clear is that while we see a Chinese family argue, laugh, and love, basically what we are witnessing is a fundamentally human interaction. Their issues run the gamut from sibling rivalry to divorce, generational discord and violence.
Of course it does. Because no matter one’s skin colour, ethnicity, gender etc etc, we are all the same basically. This simple premise is at the heart of this play and when you watch it, the idea that someone’s race (or any other aspect) should be reason to judge or persecute them seems absurd.
Single Asian Female is the third play in Auckland Theatre Company’s 2021 season and it is following the strong narrative set by the company’s other plays Two Ladies, and The Haka Party Incident. All three of them cleverly challenge our prejudices and force us to face the harmful nature of misogyny, racism, and prejudice of all types.
What these stories tell us is that the human ego is fragile, and our vulnerability can create havoc when left unexplored and unchecked. Redemption comes from having the courage to love and to have compassion for others.
Single Asian Female is a story that is compelling, charmingly funny, achingly honest and a reminder that we are all from the same human family.
SINGLE ASIAN FEMALE
30 April – 15 May 2021
Note – the text was amended to correct the playwright’s name 30/4/21