Michelle Law isn’t waiting around for Asian cultures and experiences to be represented on stage. Instead, she is bringing them to life herself.
A talented playwright, author and actor known for works such as the widely successful play Single Asian Female and book Shit Asian Mothers Say, co-authored with brother Benjamin Law, Michelle has quickly become synonymous for her unflinching mediations between culture, identity, and female representation.
Her latest work, Miss Peony 牡丹小姐, making its way to Canberra Theatre Centre across 23 – 26 August, marks a new space on stage that Michelle isn’t afraid to reclaim.
Following the story of Lily, an Australian-born Chinese woman, Miss Peony quickly taps into her threads of identity, unpacking Lily’s relationship with her grandmother (a former beauty queen from Hong Kong), whose expectations for her grandchild create a tension that drives the play forward.
Weaving another layer into the work, Lily’s Grandmother also happens to be a ghost—allowing Miss Peony to traverse between two worlds, with Lily trying to find where she fits between the two.
Michelle describes the work as creating an inherently human experience, one that every member of the audience, regardless of culture, will be able to connect with.
“It’s a show about family and culture and connection and belonging,” says Michelle.
“Lily, the protagonist, someone who’s quite fiercely assimilated, comes to a head with her Grandmother, who is haunting her from the spirit world, upholding a promise that Lily has made to her. And so, the play is really about belonging and acceptance, whether that’s finding that within yourself, or from persons in your life.”
“I think those themes seamlessly intersect with the pageant world and things to do with beauty because that is an ongoing journey of self-acceptance and trying to find happiness within who you are outside of very rigid norms [and] rigid boundaries of what it means to be a woman or what it means to be Chinese.”
Balancing humour and sentimentality, Miss Peony exists somewhere between childhood and adulthood with its innocence, rebellion, growing pains, and everything that lives in between. Michelle gently guides us to reflect on our relationships with our parents as well as what that can look like for second-generation Australians.
“I feel like every parent, regardless of culture, is a little bit like this, you know. [They have] good intentions trying to control their kid’s lives to a certain extent because they have a lot of fears for their security. And that fear is magnified when you come from a migrant background, or in this particular case, Chinese background.”
“There’s this great new proliferation of second-gen filmmakers and playwrights— Everything Everywhere All at Once comes to mind—where Chinese kids especially are really questioning the expectations that their parental figures have had for them their entire lives.”
Alongside creating a platform for the perspectives of Chinese Australians to be heard, Michelle is also forging a new path where multilingual theatre work can be championed, with Miss Peony subtitled in English and Traditional and Simplified Chinese.
Michelle explains that her push for inclusivity stems from her own grandmother’s inability to understand her first work, a heartbreaking reality she wanted to change.
“After my first play, Single Asian Female, I had all of these new audience members come along who’d like never even seen a theatre show before because they never felt like theatre was a place for them or their stories weren’t being told.”
“Even though it was amazing to have them, some of them still weren’t able to actually understand the show because they couldn’t speak English and one those people was my grandmother.”
Sadly, Michelle’s grandmother died before Miss Peony hit the theatre stage, something she describes as “bittersweet”, however, she notes that while language served as a barrier for grandmother, she is hopeful that a better sense of connection between generations is a legacy the work will pass on.
“I wrote it essentially so she could see it, but I still think it’s exciting that other people who still have their grandparents or their parents can bring those family members along.”
While Michelle’s comedic flair for laughter, her sharp insights and sense of vulnerability will allow all audience members the chance to feel seen, for second-generation Australians who may feel caught between two worlds, Miss Peony creates a space for understanding. One that can exist long after the curtains come down.
“I guess a couple of things that I would like Chinese members of the audience to take away is that you’re not alone in your experience,” reflects Michelle.
“Being a woman or being Chinese or being both of those things is really like a choose-your-own-adventure. And you shouldn’t have to subscribe to very traditional ideas of what those things mean. As long as you’re fulfilled, and you’re getting meaning for whatever you’re doing in your life, that’s the most important thing.”
What: Miss Peony 牡丹小姐
When: 23–26 August
Where: Canberra Theatre Centre
Feature image: Dan Boud