Stage & Screen

Michelle Lee's New Play 'RICE' Intimately Lifts the Lid on Asian Women in Corporate Australia

In an interview with &ASIAN's Yin Ting Lau, Hmong-Australian playwright Michelle Lee chats about her experiences as an Asian writer, and which of her experiences and inspirations influenced her brand new play, 'RICE'.
Michelle Lee. Photo courtesy of Georgie Grant.
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Michelle Lee's New Play 'RICE' Intimately Lifts the Lid on Asian Women in Corporate Australia

Firstly, congratulations to RICE for its UK premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre, which has just opened!

For our readers who haven’t seen it yet, can you give us a quick
summary on what the play is about?

Hi! And thank you, it’s super exciting to have my first international premiere. RICE is about Nisha and Yvette. Nisha’s really smart and ambitious, and has grand plans to take the Australian rice company she works for on an international path. She works all the time, and so she’s in her office at nights when Yvette is trying to clean. Because of this proximity, they initially despise each other but then find a unison. Yvette’s problem is her daughter, and how she might ‘save’ a daughter who doesn’t want to be rescued. So the play’s about Nisha’s and Yvette’s friendship, and how they help each other.

The plot sounds like a tricky balance to maintain: simultaneously a micro and macro point-of-view of two individuals striving to claim agency within the setting of a global industry.

How challenging was it for you to balance these two perspectives within the writing, and why was it important to you?

Wow, that’s a really astute assessment of what the plot is trying to achieve. Does the plot achieve this? I’m not sure! But yes you’re right in pointing out that these are two people hustling/working/rubbing up against industry, and yes, the systems and structures do command multi-way flows: you can be complicit in something and can benefit from it while also being on the receiving end of its mischief, pain, horror, abuse.

As to the challenge of writing the plot/characters, yes it was always really hard to pull back on the macro. I think this was because I read/watched/listened/interviewed for so many months before I wrote, I had so much that I wanted to share. I think it’s a marvellous proposition to create a theatrical work that might all sit in the macro but for this play, in the end, the advice from anyone inputting dramaturgically into the drafts of the play was generally to put the two characters more and more into the foreground. It’s not that this wasn’t important to me but it did get lost for me in earlier drafts.

Your two main characters, Nisha and Yvette, are both women of colour that exist in different classes and generations to each other.

Was the tension between them inspired by your own interactions and observations?

Some writers journal their thoughts and processes as they create. Unfortunately, I don’t have anything documented at the time that can tell me/remind me definitively where I was locating myself in these women. So as I returned to them for this production, I guess part of the question was about me trying to remember what inspired them in relation to my own desires/experiences but also a question of where I, now 5-ish years on, may sit in proximity to these invented people of mine.

Regarding the first question, when I was researching/writing RICE I had a desk job where I would like to work late. The post-workday rhythms suited me as a twilight time of day to get work done. I was usually at my desk when the cleaners would come in. Because I am a little socially inept, I didn’t say hello to the cleaners to start with and then felt like I completely missed the chance to say hello to them forever and so then never said hello to them at all: perhaps other socially inept people will understand!?!

So I would just observe in my own head about how between me and the cleaners there were these two different labours/work going on wordlessly in the same space, usually with the background sound of their vacuum cleaner going. At the same time, in this job, I was noticing how the new-ish CEO was hiring all these really competent young-ish women into executive roles; and how brilliant they were. This wasn’t a corporate organisation but it felt corporate-like. Actually, this government organisation I worked in was rewarding talented young people early in their careers.

Also, around this time, my mum was ‘free’ of mother/grandmother unpaid duties for the first time in probably like 30-40 years. So, she went and worked as a cleaner. She was in another city to me but every now and then I would be thinking, "These carpeted floors are being vaccumed while I type away at this computer on yet another document and my mum is vacuuming somewhere else around someone else’s desk."

Regarding the second question about how I feel about Nisha and Yvette right now, I think it was always a desire of mine that they stood in as grandmother/daughter proxies to one another. But when [I was] reading the play again, I could see they were exchanging wisdom but that actually there was a hubris and restlessness in both of them. I thought of the rage that women across cultures and generations can have.

Over the past few years, the discourse of the Asian diaspora has highlighted more effectively how our ambitions often place us more in proximity and solidarity with whiteness than with our own marginalized communities.

Does Nisha, written as an ambitious second-generation
executive who sees herself as a different socio-economic class to Yvette, represent this internal conflict to you?

How does her friendship with Yvette destabilize this opinion she has of herself?

OH MY GOD – you’re so right. Yes, for sure whiteness does atomise and separate communities as it elevates itself as something we’re all supposed to measure against or aspire to. Definitely I think you’re right that Nisha (but also Yvette) would have an internal measuring stick that could only be the blinding colour of white. I have been thinking about whether it’s even possible to escape whiteness? Maybe, if I can be so bold, there are moments in this play that land with a heart-smash when these two women are sharing an intimacy that is the unsaid stuff that only people who aren’t white can share.

So yes, I think Nisha sees herself completely on a different island from Yvette at the start but yet there is a magnetism that draws them together so at some unconscious level I think Nisha knows she and Yvette share a solidarity. This is not to say that everyone who is not white is somewhat seamlessly ‘the same’ or able to be in commonality but for these two, I think they are like mirrors/ciphers/refractions to one another.

But to be a little specific, whilst also trying not to spoil the end (which maybe is obvious anyway), I think Nisha ‘ultimately/eventually’ does destabilise the opinion she has of Yvette and therefore too of herself in the end in seeking solace from Yvette.

Yvette, as a worker who performs largely manual labour within the play, is shown to have her own entrepreneurial ambitions: ambitions that are complicated by her daughter who seeks to publicly disrupt unethical industries and faces legal repercussions.

What was your reasoning for including this additional relationship that highlights the diasporic generational gap in a different way?

Was it inspired by other relationships you’ve experienced or observed

Not directly lifted from real-life but more so in a generalised way where the second-gen and the first-gen for diaspora and migrant people can feel so dramatically demarcated. It’s the classic (stereotypical?) intergenerational parent/child clash that pits generation against generation but I actually think Yvette and her daughter are both disruptors and rebels. So maybe then it becomes not just about culture or generation but interpersonal physics where you attract/repel with people too much like yourself.

Yvette and Nisha in the Orange Tree Theatre production of RICE. Photo: Orange Tree Theatre.

A unique element to the play is that the actors, Zainab Hasan and Sarah Lam, perform the entirety of the cast of characters, reminding us of the chameleon-like assimilation that members of the diaspora often unconsciously perform.

Was this something you were thinking about, drawn from your own personal background and experiences?

That is such a great offering that their character-flipping is a metaphor for ‘passing’. I love that so much and I wonder too (having not yet seen the live stream) if the production of the play this time round may have taken that approach. Because I’ve always maintained that the actors being demanded to flip roles was honouring their abilities and range as acting technicians, and that also this meant the stage would be devoid of white bodies.

I agree too that this can be problematised and actually just reinforce a version of assimilation, a rejection of one’s self. I love this and think that both might be available and possible: that the chameleon thing is a comment on the survival instincts to pass and assimilate and, perhaps, also something joyous.

The Golden Fields Rice Company within your play serves as just one example of capitalistic production that subtly dictates the status of people within the labour chain as seen in our main characters Nisha and Yvette.

Can you tell us about the significance of choosing rice as the industrial backdrop to their story?

When I had the idea for the play, one of the early motifs/images was of rice. Not so much an image of a rice grain or a rice field, actually, or even people eating rice. I think I saw it or felt it in my head as this sort of cultural culinary lingua franca that connects so many Asian cultures. But that in a capitalistic society, our daily bread (well, rice) is something commodified and a price is put on it. In my own cultural setting (Hmong) rice means food as well as specifically meaning rice.

Your work frequently deals with hidden systems of labour, especially the labour performed by migrants and outsiders who then form crucial but largely invisible parts of society we all need.

Can you tell us about some of your past projects that have strived to bring the stories of these workers to light?

I think it’s because all my life I’ve worked. I’ve worked in that way to justify my space and with the belief that work will help me succeed/fit in. So because work defines me so much; but as your questions have highlighted, the need to work succeed in capitalism is white supremacy in operation. Yes, because work is so much a part of me, maybe more so than my link to ‘family’, then work is my go-to, it’s the way I understand to navigate this world. Whether that is the desk job I once had or the gig economy that is the arts, I work I work I work. But my workplaces are also of course where I make so many human connections. So I look to work/labour settings as ways to construct families; and I’m drawn to them too for plays and stories.

Anyway, to your question, one of my earlier works was Talon Salon (2012.) In 2010 I was sitting in a spa chair in a budget nail salon in Sydney getting a pedicure. It was soothing and intimate and horrifying to be a part of this bodily labour interaction at a cheap cost. I became fascinated by this new phenomenon of budget nail salons that had started to ferociously emerge in Australia at the time and were largely run by Vietnamese people. So I conceived a live art audio project that required connection-building with one particular salon and also interviewing about a dozen other nail salon workers.

The work asked audiences to come into these salons, with the biases they unavoidably hold, and pick an audio track I’d written, and get their nails done as they listened to the audio track. The audio tracks were like radio plays, with stories and words drawn from my interviews, my musings. These weren’t non-fiction works, I wanted to use fiction to magnify the nail salon world, to play with and explore ideas of who works there and why, who comes in and why.

As to the labour aspect, I was also conscious of assuming there was zero joy/autonomy in the work. Not to completely romanticise doing this work or the limitations around owning the salons but I did learn that, maybe it’s obvious, if you can’t speak English well in Australia than being in small business can be a way you might assert some freedom.

As a Hmong-Australian playwright highlighting these untold stories of the diaspora, what changes do you wish to see in our media and cultural industries?

Especially as older migrant generations can generally be reluctant to talk about the difficulties they faced in pursuing the 'immigrant dream', do you think these stories are at risk of being lost to the past before they are remembered and represented sufficiently within the mainstream?

I think to some extent our parents’ voices and dreams are chronicled through second-gen children writers/artists, like Qui Nguyen’s VIETGONE. I think too that death of our parents/elders doesn’t equate entirely with losing their wisdom or hopes or anxieties. That stuff does get passed on, it lives in us. Whether or not we want to or can do it justice is another question but in general I think a lot of second-gen artists and writers put those stories and concerns their parents/elders have into their work.

In terms of changes to the landscapes, yes absolutely there’s change to come, it has to come. Countries like Australia are scarred by violence, dispossession - we need to keep contesting history, whiteness, privilege, structural racism. In part that means more POC artists and First Nations artists being given the reins but also white folks need to work in solidarity, it can’t just be us doing all the work. Don’t we all benefit by contesting things, by wanting to be shown the range of how we’re all complex and human?

For those of us excited to see more of your work in uncovering these largely unacknowledged narratives, can you tell us a bit about what you’re working on next?

Right now I am asking myself about what I write about and what I don’t. I’ll probably be writing/making more Hmong stories and exploring what that means to me. I’m developing a TV show concept for a comedy show called NEXT BIG THING and I think I’m about to make the protagonist Hmong. I’ve been developing a theatre and episodic podcast project based on phone- calls I did with my parents in February 2020 and this is a work about getting older, approaching death, ghosts: it’s called HOW DO I LET YOU DIE?

I want to start writing a two-hander play about a Hmong woman who has a sliding doors moment in the jungles and meets the village girl version of herself, I’m about to write a short piece which will be a love-letter to the Real Housewives reality show, and drafting my first feature film: a romance drama that is attempting to be a romantic comedy while also subverting and questioning romance and love itself.

Find Michlee Lee at her website here. To find out more about RICE or to watch the show, visit the Orange Tree Theatre website here. RICE will also be available via livestream via OT on Screen on the 4th and 5th of November.

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