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‘Rice’ – Michele Lee on her play that is a powerful, funny, entertaining, wry look at family, globalisation and multiculturalism (interview)…

‘Rice’ –  Michele Lee on her play that is a powerful, funny, entertaining, wry look at family, globalisation and multiculturalism (interview)…

This play is nearing the end of its UK run and centres around two women of different ages, one an ambitious South Asian executive, and the other, a cleaner of Chinese origin, as they form an unlikely friendship in modern day Australia…

By Suman Bhuchar

MICHELE LEE is an exciting new writing voice from Australia, who works across stage, television, live art, audio and film.

She comes from the Hmong-Australian background and her work centres around stories of identity, found families, experiences of people of colour and women.

Audiences in the UK have currently had the opportunity to see her play, ‘Rice’, which is a co-production between Actors Touring Company (ATC), and Orange Tree Theatre (OTT), and for which she won the Australian Writer’s Guild Award for Best Original Stage Play in 2018.

Michele Lee © Victoria Scott

‘Rice’ is set against the backdrop of a corporate world and tells the story of Nisha, an executive and Yvette, a cleaner who meet in their office every day and an unlikely friendship ensues.

The show had its European premiere at the Orange Tree Theatre in November 2021 and has been touring the UK in 2022. saw it at the Orange Tree Theatre in Richmond, London, and enjoyed its portrayal of office politics, corporate culture, girl power and invited the writer to share a conversation on zoom across different time zones, discussing diversity, identity and telling stories.

Lee explained that she wrote ‘Rice’, as a two hander for two female performers of colour, one who is an Indian and the other Chinese and all other characters; male, American, Russian, Indian are stipulated to be performed by the same actors playing the two key roles.

“I just want to write something that doesn’t have any white bodies, like the bodies that I saw a lot and work that I responded to and enjoyed,” Lee explained to acv. “I am now 41 and have been part of theatre for a long time, but when I looked around me theatre is not diverse and you internalise this stuff.”

As Lee discusses her experiences of working in the theatre and arts and the culture sector of Australia as a visible minority, it is not difficult to find parallels with similar conversations taking place in the UK with writers, actors and directors having to struggle to get their voice heard and stories put on stage.

“When I began writing I didn’t think about whiteness, my own cultural identity, the diaspora population of Australia, my inherited culture, the many micro aggressions and these are the things I want to speak about and explore,” she told acv.

Nisha (Anya Jaya-Murphy) ©The Other Richard

However, the inherent theatre culture in Australia is white and opportunities for artists of colour are often narrow and confined to cultural stereotypes.

Lee points out that her actor friends bemoan the narrow roles they get such as playing doctors or prostitutes.

Also, conversely, as a writer of colour, you tend to be pigeonholed to write about “your community.”

She began writing student theatre, talking about sex and ‘zombies’, before then moving on to write shows about the experiences of being an Asian minority.

Eventually this led to the challenge of writing ‘Rice’ which not only provided an acting opportunity for two female people of colour leads, but also went beyond stories of conflict within a community and explored ‘living multiculturalism’, as it were, in a global city.

Australia is not a big population and it’s quite multicultural, she told us.

“On a day-to-day level we brush shoulders in a city like Melbourne with people who are from a variety of backgrounds”.

“I also wanted to not have these two women be Chinese mother /daughter but two independent women who form an unlikely friendship.”

Lee did a lot of research to create authenticity and nuance for the play.

She travelled to India, visiting Kolkata (Calcutta), New Delhi and Varkala beach in Kerala, where she met an agricultural advocacy organisation, and talked to South Asian origin people who are of a similar age to the character of Nisha in the play.

She also talked to her mother who worked as a cleaner at one point.

“It was important to wrap my head around the detail of their life.”

Luckily for UK audiences, Matthew Xia, artistic director of ATC – a company committed to new work and global voices – liked its fresh perspective and the company decided to produce it as part of their overall work.

‘Rice’ has an innate understanding and knowledge of these two women.

Yvette (Angelo Yeoh) ©The Other Richard

We see Nisha navigate her working life as a hot-shot, go-getting corporate type, alongside balancing her family commitments, while Yvette is an older single mum trying to tame her rebellious daughter.

Lee’s Hmong-Australian background informs her work, and she is one of seven siblings, who “grew up in a time when the country’s government was promoting multiculturalism, black cohesion, living languages, and Australia as a great multicultural country.”

Like a lot of other Asian families, hers encouraged her to get a good education and a stable job for economic security.

She did an advertising degree at the University of Canberra, held down an office job, and was unsure of how to express herself artistically.

She said: “I was never really confident to feel like I will be a writer, or artist.”

For her the issue was, how could I make a living as a creative writer?

However, as fate would have it, she moved to the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to continue her studies and this is where she had access to student theatre, so she began writing profusely, as a way of honing her craft.

Lee is excited at the reception that ‘Rice’ has received in the UK and how the themes of friendship, family, global politics and representation has struck a chord with the theatre community and audiences across Britain.

‘Rice’ by Michele Lee, tonight (April 13) and Thursday (April 14) 7.30pm, York Theatre Royal, St Leonard’s Place, York, YO1 7HD
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Written by Asian Culture Vulture