Laurinda, the story of a 15-year-old Vietnamese teenager who is thrust into a private girls’ school on a scholarship, has been boxed as an Asian-Australian story. But it shouldn’t be. This coming-of-age play is exactly that, a narrative that follows a fictional student in a fictional school. Though the theatre world is becoming more diverse, there’s still a hangover cloud of tokenism that shrouds shows like these.
“We are the Asian show this year,” playwright Diana Nguyen puts it bluntly. “There's always one or two Asian shows out of, you know, 12 shows. When you are the one show of the year, everyone looks at you [so] you have to succeed. You have to be the best.”
The pressure to succeed — not just by filling seats but also in reception from the community you’re representing — can weigh heavy. It’s why Nguyen is adamant that Laurinda will not, and should not, represent all Asian Australians.
“There's that massive pressure that we put on ourselves that we have to write for everyone. And that's why we — me and [director] Petra [Kalive] — peeled it back to say this is a Vietnamese family story. We're not representing Asian Australia. We're starting with a Vietnamese family.”
For Ngoc Phan, the actress who brings life to protagonist Lucy Lam, the specificities of the Vietnamese Australian experience in the ‘90s were true to form. As the first Vietnamese girl to be born in Alice Springs (her family was one of four Vietnamese refugee families to move to the town), the play’s themes of isolation, identity and culture were hyperrealistic to her.
“The juggle between trying to survive in two cultures was a huge part of my upbringing,” she tells Refinery29 Australia.
When she first read the novel of the same name written by Alice Pung, her initial reaction was resistance. “I felt such a resistance not because I didn’t enjoy the novel, but because it just struck a chord so deep, and the power of being seen, and the nuance of the story was unlike anything that I read before.”
The feeling of being seen by a piece of content isn’t something minorities take for granted. When I first read Pung’s book, I was stopped in my tracks when I saw words written in Teochew, my mother tongue. It knocked the wind out of me, seeing myself and my culture in print.
I can recall similar moments in time when truthful and sincere mouthfuls of representation (as opposed to the crumbs we have become used to) have come my way. Michelle Law’s hilariously authentic and moving play Single Asian Female was pivotal to me, as was Benjamin Law’s Torch The Place. There’s been a rise in Asian-centred theatre — 2019 saw the audacious play Golden Shield take the stage, Michelle Law has just finished a run of her new play Top Coat and this year’s production of Lady Precious Stream featured an all-Asian-Australian cast and crew.
This adaptation of Laurinda is the Melbourne Theatre Company’s first mainstage show featuring Vietnamese dialogue. Scenes with Lam’s parents (Roy Phung, Chi Nguyen) were predominately in Vietnamese, with scattered English throughout their interactions. This smorgasbord of language is all too common in ethnic households.
“Having Vietnamese on stage is, for me and to my ears, heaven,” says Phan. For non-Vietnamese-speaking people (particularly white people), she adds that it’s a chance for them to experience what it’s like being on the outer.
“The languages that we speak at home, especially if our parents are working class, are not the languages that are welcome in public."
“My parents didn't speak English when they first came out here, so it’s a chance for an audience who don't speak Vietnamese to go, 'I don't understand what's going on, but I understand everything that's going on’… There’s discomfort there and it's just a small slice of the immigrant refugee experience.”
Pung rallies around this conscious choice of having Vietnamese spoken on stage. “The languages that we speak at home, especially if our parents are working class, are not the languages that are welcome in public. And so, we always grew up thinking our languages were ugly and third world because there's a hierarchy of languages,” she says.
The inclusion of Vietnamese in theatre, a predominately white and upper-class arena, is subversive. I couldn’t help but think that though I get to see working-class immigrant parents on stage, it’s with a twinge of sorrow that it’s accompanied by the reminder that our parents are rarely welcome in cultural institutions like these.
"I'm Vietnamese, but I'm also Australian and so I can play Australian characters."
Having Laurinda on stage is about “claiming power back” for Phan. Nguyen’s cast of half a dozen Asian-Australian actors and actresses proved themselves while shape-shifting through multiple roles in the 100-minute show. Kalive and Nguyen chose to have the Asian cast members also play white characters. When asked why, Nguyen flips the question, asking why white people have rarely been questioned when playing cultures and races that aren’t their own.
“Asian actors can play all characters and can tell all stories because they are authentic to us. I'm Vietnamese, but I'm also Australian and so I can play Australian characters,” Nguyen says. “That's the power that I have as being Asian Australian or Vietnamese Australian… my toolkit is immense.”
Walking out of the theatre, I hear fellow Asians joke around me that they need therapy after watching the play. Reliving past incidents of racism in the schoolyard, coming face-to-face with the hardships of immigrant toil and grappling with the messiness that comes with growing up isn’t easy — for both the audience and the cast.
“We take care of each other. After the show every night, [the cast] ‘disrobes’ and we say, ‘I’m Ngoc Phan. I play the role of Lucy Lam and tonight I'm going to have a cup of tea’. It's just to ground ourselves by knowing that it's a really safe space to explore these things,” Phan says, adding that they had a cultural consultant (Alice Qin) available to the cast during the rehearsal period.
It’s been almost a decade since Pung’s book was released in 2014. She says that back then, ‘microagressions’ wasn’t an overly common term. And while both the book and play are set in the ‘90s, their content is still familiar to Asian Australians growing up today.
This isn’t necessarily a happy play. There are pockets of joy and many a reference to Silverchair’s leading man Daniel Johns, but I left feeling bittersweet. While it’s a story of perseverance and preservation, it’s also a harrowing reminder of the racism that has pervaded the Asian-Australian community for decades. From Pauline Hanson’s “swamped by Asians” 1996 speech to the wave of anti-Asian hate following the coronavirus outbreak, it’s sobering to reflect on.
But this pain also propels the cast of Laurinda to tell the dark truths, earnestly and openly.
“We have to acknowledge and deal with what we have, and tend to the trauma, tend to the pain, tend to the things that have created such disruption in our biosphere because we're all sharing the same space,” says Phan. “So, how do we tend to it in a way that allows strengthening and healing to be done in the best possible way in order to move forward?”
“We hope that people can all relate to the story not because it's Asian Australian but because it is about courage and belonging and what we do to ourselves to belong,” says Nguyen. "We hope that Laurinda allows people to have conversations.”