Single Asian Female – Interpersonal relationships are not an island. (Theatre Review)

Single Asian Female

Belvoir Street Theatre

16 Feb – 25 March. You can grab your tickets here.

Images: Dan Boud

Michelle Law’s very clever play, Single Asian Female begins with its title; Single. Asian. Female. For Pearl (Hsiao-Ling Tang) a newly divorced category of the population called the woman-wife, the repercussions of her service trade for upkeep relationship (glamorously described as a marriage) are larger than she ever understood and coming home to roost. If we accept that marriage gives rise to the exploitation of women, then it would be logical to suppose pressure should be brought upon women to marry. Within this, there are various forms of pressure cultural, emotional-relational, and material-economic – and the latter is usually masked by the former – that usually result in marriage as a self-perpetuating state. Therefore, to think of Pearl as a victim is to miss the other side of the coin, for in choosing the work-wife career, Pearl did choose the best option available to her. For Pearl the paradox of the economic female is perfectly played out: on one hand is the marriage (institutional) situation where women are exploited, and on the other hand, precisely because of this, the potential market situation for women’s labour (which is that of all women, not just those who are actually married) is that marriage still offers them the best career, economically speaking. If economic security is no longer geared toward men overtly, there is no doubt that it favours couples, or (an understanding we can no longer avoid in a post-YES Australia) the married.

Pearl, like many women, assumes the full responsibility of raising the children, after the marriage has ended. She also assumes the responsibility for the family business (that she has been running for years) and its associated hidden liabilities. Australian white women have sought to correct this with pressure on legal settlements and an appropriate corrective control over man-made institutions such as CSA, but our non-white sisters still struggle with these problems. For non-white women, and in the case of Pearl, Asian women, divorce can be an extension of marriage, or a transformation of it, rather than an end. Her sole compensation is that she doesn’t have to carry the domestic responsibility for her husband (this changes when the plays hidden twist appears). This casts a special light on her marriage contract. Indeed, looking at Pearl’s life, the material responsibility for her children is her privilege whether married or not, while in marriage she could at least provide domestic labor for a shared responsibility in raising children and running the restaurant. In this way, material upkeep of the husband by the wife is related to the participation of the husband in the upkeep of his children.[1]

It is therefore, only natural in Michelle Law’s world, to examine the consequences of this situation through the body of her character Zoe (Alex Lee) a woman confronted with the problems of partnering in straight relationships and bearing children. Zoe sees and doesn’t see her mother Pearl, but her behaviors indicate she intuits what she does not see. In her father’s absence, she must take up the mantle of support for her mother, and this comes via her new relationship. Zoe embodies the complexities of both a mother and a female child dealing with an absent (in many ways) father, and the easy societal presumptive labor apportioned to women. In this way, the husband-father is not the only one to benefit from the labor of a ‘married’ Zoe. For Zoe, the situation of her mother and sister after divorce, in which the responsibility for her sister (still a dependent) and the rights of her mother are an important aspect, a situation arises that constitutes a strong economic incentive for marriage. It also places an economic burden on Pearl to remarry.

Michelle Law couches all these issues in an excellent, life-filled, vibrant production that never pauses from being enormous fun. Director Claire Christian keeps the pace alive and takes full advantage of a beautifully crafted set by Moe Assad. A deep sense of warmth imbues the production with connectivity that crosses all cultural boundaries. Hsiao-Ling Tang is superb as Pearl, our much put-upon protagonist. Her opening monologue, particularly her cry for identity and freedom is profoundly moving. She is well supported by Alex Lee and Courtney Stuart as her daughters Zoe and Mai respectively, especially when providing a vibrant colourful thrill as all three dance table top wearing their cheongsam gowns. A special shout out to Emily Burton for her marvellous “wanna-be-Asian” performance the highlight of which (ironically) is her salt-n-pepper karaoke moment.

Single Asian Female is a superb retelling of many female stories still playing out around us in Australian society today. It is also a wonderful night of theatre and exudes a joy and passion while being very funny with a giant wit that pokes fun at the absurdity of so many social constructs.

[1] Delphy, Christine – Close To home. Verso Books