Playwright Michele Lee on RICE at the Orange Tree Theater
I was in Sydney in a drama writing lab. It was in 2012. I had come to the lab with a vague idea of rural women’s associations and the history of Chinese people in parts of the country since the days of the Gold Rush. During the weeklong lab, we had various master classes of theater artists sharing their different methodologies, from those working with more conventional plays, to improvised collaboration, to verbatim, to verbatim dance. , to work adapted to the site.
At the end of the lab, I had a new idea. I didn’t have a plot (I rarely start with the plot). I could see two people on stage, connected eating rice, selling rice, both women of color (although that wasn’t really common language at the time). Suffice it to say, I imagined them not being white, not part of the dominant majority that was overrepresented on major Australian stages.
I wanted the two actors playing these roles to switch between the other roles as well in majestic feats of acting virtuosity, smoothly transforming into the other characters that span age, gender, class, culture. My friends of Asian actors often rolled their eyes at the routine of sex worker roles they got auditions for because those were the kinds of roles we wrote for them. It wasn’t good enough. I wanted amazing Asian actors on stage, playing roles they weren’t usually chosen for.
The plot, what happens, the exact characters came later.
I started research Rice around 2014, then wrote Rice in 2015 and it premiered in Australia in 2017. It went through several developments, and one of the original cast (simultaneously tender, wild and intelligent Kristy Best) also ended up in production.
My observations at the time of writing and development Rice was that stories about Asian and South Asian peoples, whether told on stage, on screen or in books, tended to focus on family narratives and also on stories about the particular ethnic community whose the characters are from. This meant that if there were Chinese protagonists then most of the other characters were probably Chinese, they were probably relatives.
I wanted a story that reflects contemporary urban Australia in its multiracial character, where people of different nationalities and cultures clash. This is not to confuse proximity with instantaneous harmony or transparent mutual understanding. Rice begins with a confrontation between Nisha – who is young, intelligent, ambitious, second generation Indian, in a managerial position – in a power struggle with Yvette – who is an older first generation Chinese migrant, full of pride she – even and who is not about to take the shit out of an upstart.
Disclose. Impasse is a bit of a performance, a masquerade. They become companions.
I am Hmong. So I am neither Chinese nor Indian. (What is “Hmong” … look for it!) Saying “Hmong”, “Chinese”, “Indian” can too easily erase the nuances that exist within the Hmong, Chinese and Indian populations in Australia. Not everyone is the same, of course.
On the other hand, racial categories can be useful in reminding us who is marginalized and that whiteness is a dominant pattern. In that sense, there was a similarity in the experiences I have of the world that other Asians or South Asians have. There are parts of me in Nisha, in Yvette.
In Australia, having the skin in a shade that is not fair makes your cultural history always present and visible. It takes a lifetime to answer the question “Where are you from?” “. As if in Australia, a nation with a relatively new colonization history, we are not all outsiders if we are not First Nations, as if we are not all straddling the tension of a ‘d’. elsewhere ”and a“ from here ”.
It’s no surprise that professional theater in Australia has been so white for so long (Australian playwright Kim Ho made a big statistical analyzes thus stubborn with recent theatrical programming). Things change. The efforts of organizations such as Contemporary Asian Australian Performance have resulted in the advent of dedicated writing and directing programs to connect Asian storytelling talents with professional businesses.
When Rice created, it is the same year as Michelle Law single asian premiered, a comedy about a Chinese-Australian mother and her two daughters. And the same year as that of Disapol Savetsila Australian Graffiti created, a play about a Thai family. It was unprecedented to have so many “Asian” stories on the main stage.
But there is a growing contingent of Asian playwrights, much more than when I started. And they continue to be commissioned and staged. There are still many more structural changes to come, to integrate. But to the touch of the wood (bamboo? Teak? Palm tree?) It gets better.
Hopefully this means more Australian plays will end up in London as well, showcasing the rich diversity of local Asian writers and directors I know – diverse in their backgrounds, diverse in their artistic preoccupations – but often linked by their insistence, whether subtle or not, whether through comedy or otherwise, to question power, question the status quo, and center and celebrate the intricacies of difference.
Rice is at the Orange Tree Theater until November 13, then on tour – book here
Photo credit: Helen Murray