“This play has been sort of a fertility totem,” says Michelle Law. “I think we’ve had maybe four children in the process. We’ve joked about having a baby curtain call.”
The fertility totem in question is Single Asian Female, Law’s smash-hit debut play which premiered at La Boite in 2017 and then at Belvoir the following year. And the ‘we’ refers not to herself but to others involved in the production, specifically actor and new mother Alex Lee. It’s why I’m speaking to the playwright today, who is stepping in for Lee as Single Asian Female returns to La Boite.
Hsiao-Ling Tang, Michelle Law and Courtney Stewart. Photo © Daniel Boud
“In the back of my head it was always a possibility that I could be in the play,” says Law. “But I was so busy with the writing of it and of making sure that everything was perfect that the idea of doing so, at least during the first couple of runs, was too stressful. I was too in my own head about the work to really consider it.”
Single Asian Female is a big-hearted comedy that packs a hell of a punch, plunging us into the trials and tribulations of the Wongs, a Chinese-Australian family living in Nambour, Queensland. Much of it pivots around Pearl, a tough-as-nails, recently divorced Chinese migrant whose difficulty understanding the lives of her Australian-born daughters, Zoe and Mei, is funny and often painful. Law plays elder sister Zoe, a woman in her late 20s grappling with big life decisions and the horrors of dating in the 21st century.
Law says she’s grateful for the acting experience she gained on SBS’s Homecoming Queens, a seven-part comedy series she co-wrote with her friend Chloë Reeson. Loosely based on their experiences of living with chronic illness – Law developed alopecia as a teenager and Reeson was diagnosed with breast cancer in her early twenties – it has helped her remain calm in the lead up to her mainstage debut.
Michelle Law. Photo © Daniel Boud
But Law maintains that the most disconcerting aspect about jumping into Single Asian Female is discovering the play from an entirely new perspective. “It’s been a really bizarre experience because I feel a lot more critical of the writing,” she laughs. “Like ‘what was I thinking when I wrote this?!’ And I’ve definitely become more aware of the habits that I have as a writer, the words or phrases that I lean into. It’s been a process of learning how to put the writers’ hat down in exchange for the actors’ hat, and luckily the rest of the cast have been with it since the beginning so I have them to support me.”
Law describes the last two years as a ‘whirlwind’, leaving her little opportunity to reflect on the success of the play itself. She’s been most blown away by the audience feedback, much of it emotional.
“The most heart-warming ones are from Chinese-Australian kids. They knew that representation onstage was an issue intellectually, but they maybe didn’t really feel it or understand it until it hit them in the gut, seeing their own stories onstage and in a lot of cases hearing their mother tongue or their parents’ mother tongue.”
The impact of the play was driven home as Law began attending performances herself. She fondly recalls seeing “people who had never been to the theatre before, people who were bringing their families, or just big groups of friends laughing over things said onstage that their own mothers had said to them.”
Courtney Stewart, Michelle Law and Hsiao-Ling Tang. Photo supplied
Growing up, theatregoing was considered a Christmas treat – Law’s siblings would buy her a season pass to Queensland Theatre Company, or they’d occasionally travel to see a Sydney Theatre Company production. But, Law says, growing up prior to a real emphasis on new writing or works by a diversity of Australian voices was frustrating to her.
“I just really didn’t feel that inspired by the works that I saw,” she says. “And when I would see it with Anglo friends, they didn’t really understand why I wasn’t connecting to the work. I ended up seeing a lot of very polished, mainstage productions of reproduced Australian plays by staple Australian voices, not many new ones, and I didn’t feel like there was much for me.”
It was on an excursion with her high school drama class to see the musical Miss Saigon that Law had her own visceral, gut moment about the importance of representation. “I remember being like ‘oh wow, my story could be the centre of the story and I could be the lead character in something like that.’ And it was really the first time I’d seen something like that.”
Which brings us back to Single Asian Female, the success of which doesn’t look like it’s going to let up any time soon (especially given the recent announcement that it will receive a Melbourne run in April). Even though Law has found it difficult to take a minute to smell the roses, she treasures those moments where she realises her play has had an impact on other people.
“At the performances I went to, there would be Chinese kids with their mums and they’d be hitting each other jokingly and whispering ‘that’s you and that’s what you say!’ Or there’d be moments like when my dad contacted me to say ‘oh, I just saw an ad for the play in a Chinese newspaper.’ That was pretty surreal.”
Single Asian Female returns to La Boite from February 16 until March 9
Single Asian Female plays at Arts Centre Melbourne, April 3 – 21