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Guest Blog: Playwright Michele Lee on RICE at the Orange Tree Theatre

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Lee also reflects on Asian representation in theatre

Guest Blog: Playwright Michele Lee on RICE at the Orange Tree Theatre
Rice

I was in Sydney in a playwriting lab. It was 2012. I'd come to the lab with a loose idea about Country Women's Associations and the history of Chinese people in the country regions since Gold Rush days. During the week-long lab, we had various masterclasses from theatre artists sharing their various methodologies, from those working with more conventional text-based plays, to improvised collaboration, to verbatim, to dance verbatim, to site-responsive work.

At the end of the lab, I had a new idea. I didn't have a plot (I rarely start with plot). I could see two people on stage, connected by eating rice, by selling rice, both of them women of colour (although that wasn't really the common language back then). Suffice it to say, I imagined them not being white, not being part of the dominant majority that was over-represented on Australian main stages.

I wanted the two actors playing these roles also to flip between the other roles in majestic feats of acting virtuosity, morphing fluidly into the other characters that spanned age, gender, class, culture. Asian acting friends of mine often rolled their eyes at the routineness of sex worker roles they got auditions for because these were the sort of roles being written for them. This wasn't good enough. I wanted kick-ass Asian actors on stage, playing roles they weren't generally cast for.

The plot, the what happens, the exact characters came later.

I began researching Rice around 2014, then writing Rice in 2015 and it premiered in Australia in 2017. It underwent several developments, and one of the original actors (the simultaneously tender and savage and smart Kristy Best) ended up in the production too.

Guest Blog: Playwright Michele Lee on RICE at the Orange Tree Theatre
Rice

My observations at the time of writing and developing Rice was that stories about Asian and South Asian people, whether told through stage, screen or books, tended to focus on family narratives and also stories about the particular ethnic community 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 reflected contemporary, urban Australia in its multiracial-ness, where people of different nationalities and cultures butt up against each other. This is not to conflate proximity with instant harmony or seamless mutual understanding. Rice starts with a stand-off between Nisha - who's young, smart, ambitious, second-generation Indian, in an executive job - in a power struggle with Yvette - who's older, first-generation Chinese migrant, full of hubris herself and who's not about to take shit from an upstart.

Spoiler. The stand-off's a bit of a performance, a charade. They become mates.

I'm Hmong. So I'm neither Chinese nor am I Indian. (What is 'Hmong'...look it up!) Saying 'Hmong', 'Chinese', 'Indian' can too easily erase the nuances that exist within the Hmong, Chinese, 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 marginalised and that whiteness is a prevailing structure. 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 skin in a shade that's not fair makes your cultural story ever-present and visible. It means a lifetime of fielding the question of "Where are you from?". As if in Australia, a nation with a relatively new settler history, we're not all foreigners if we're not First Nations, as if we're not all straddling the tension of a 'from elsewhere' and 'from here'.

Guest Blog: Playwright Michele Lee on RICE at the Orange Tree Theatre
Rice

It's not surprising that professional theatre in Australia was so white, for so long (an Australian playwright Kim Ho did a great Diversity/">Diversity-theatre-report/">statistical analysis of this stubborn fact with recent theatre programming). Things are changing. The efforts of organisations like Contemporary Asian Australian Performance have meant the advent of dedicated writing and directing programs to connect Asian storytelling talent into professional companies.

When Rice premiered, it was the same year that Michelle Law's Single Asian Female premiered, a comedy about a Chinese-Australian mother and her two daughters. And the same year that Disapol Savetsila's Australian Graffiti premiered, a play about a Thai family. It was unprecedented to have so many 'Asian' stories on the mainstage.

But there's a growing contingent of Asian playwrights, far more than when I started. And they are continuing to be commissioned and staged. There's still much more structural change to come, to embed. But touch wood (bamboo? teak? palm?) things are feeling better.

I hope this means more Australian plays end up in London too, showcasing the rich Diversity/">Diversity of the local Asian writers and theatre-makers I experience - diverse in their background, diverse in their artistic concerns - but often linked by their insistence whether subtle or not, whether through comedy or otherwise, to question power, question the status quo, and to centre and celebrate the complexities of difference.

Rice is at the Orange Tree Theatre until 13 November, then touring - book here

Photo credit: Helen Murray


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