RICE, Michele Lee’s humorous observation on gender, globalisation, family and friendship, plays York Theatre Royal tonight and tomorrow.
Winner of the Australian Writers’ Guild Award for Best Original Stage Play, Lee’s story focuses on the powerful – if unlikely – bond between an ambitious young businesswoman and her office cleaner as they navigate the complexities of their lives and the world at large.
Nisha (Anya Jaya-Murphy), a headstrong hotshot executive at Golden Fields, Australia’s largest producer of rice, is determined to become the first female Indian chief executive officer in Australia.
She is close to sealing a contract with the Indian government in a secret deal worth billions that would see her company take over India’s national rice distribution system.
Working late nights in the office, she encounters Yvette (Angela Yeoh), an older Chinese migrant, who cleans up her mess. Yvette has her own entrepreneurial ambitions, but her daughter faces court after participating in a protest against the unethical practices of a national supermarket chain.
“I’ve always wanted to centre a story around two strong female actors of colour and that was my starting point,” says Michele. “In this play their characters traverse a range of identities and jump between and transform across many different roles.
“I feel exhilarated that this drama is being staged on opposite sides of the world and hope its universal themes around gender, ambition and friendship will resonate with audiences in the UK.”
The British production is being mounted by Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre, Richmond, in association with Plymouth Theatre Royal, under the direction of ATC artistic director Matthew Xia.
“It feels fantastic after this pandemic-enforced hiatus to finally be back touring shows again,” he says of a tour that already has visited Scarborough’s Stephen Joseph Theatre on March 4 and 5 in its first North Yorkshire showcase.
“I’m looking forward to introducing this dynamic and expansive drama, which stays true to ATC’s mission in bringing fresh dialogue and perspectives from different cultures and intersections to audiences up and down the country.”
Hmong-Australian writer Michele Lee tells stories through theatre, live art, audio and on screen, exploring otherness, Asian identity and found families, usually through “contemporary narratives that privilege the experiences of women and people of colour”.
“The play began with me thinking about these roles of power that don’t tend to be diverse,” she says. “When I was beginning to write plays, it was against a backdrop of people of colour being limited in what they could be cast for because, in the plays that were being written, they were never more than the side role.
“Whereas I wanted to be able to write about women of different ages and different backgrounds, and with Rice, it’s not too much of a stretch of the imagination to consider what could connect people in different ways.”
Michele did “heaps of research”. “I went to India; I met a farming advocacy group; an Australian crop baron, who had a variety of crops, not just rice, and he was interesting because he was educated in agricultural science,” she says.
“His parents were farmers but had studied the business side and this was indicative of how things had changed from when people who farmed lived in villages pre-industrial revolution.
“The play is an exposition of some of the real-world issues, focusing on two women who are spiky and that really resonated with me.”
Michele is a writer of Southeast Asian descent. “My background is Hmong, a diaspora of stateless people, with that diaspora being due to war,” she says. “My dad came out to Canberra as a student on an Australian government scholarship, and my mum was allowed to join him on a humanitarian visa. After the Hmong were exposed as ‘anti-Communist for supporting the Americans’ in the Vietnam war, she had fled to a refugee camp.”
Born into 1980s’ Australia, Michele grew up in Canberra as one of only 4,000 Hmong people in Australia. “I’m an Australian citizen, and I’ve written stuff that’s autobiographical, but with Rice I’m writing about people who are ‘absented’ in Australia,” she says.
“They are two women from different Asian backgrounds with differences in how they appear and the cultures they come from, but they overlap more than they don’t, and though it starts off with their antipathy, maybe I’m kind of hopeful because ultimately the play ends in a mostly hopeful way when they’d started off not being friendly.
“The cynic in me says that would never happen, but there’s a wider hope and aspiration to allow them to look for friendship.”
Michele enjoyed writing for the two-hander format. “There’s no relief because there’s no-one providing a third voice,” she says. “It heightens the intensity, and though there are moments of levity, it allows for frank discussions.”
She did not make it to the London run but travelled over to Britain from her Melbourne home last month when the regional dates were underway with a different cast and new touring set. “I got to Liverpool on the Friday, feeling very zonked, and saw it on the Saturday, feeling less zonked. I enjoyed it,” she says.
“It’s hard to separate my inner critic, always looking for something wrong about it, when I should be thinking, ‘what do I like about it?’, and there’s plenty!”
Actors Touring Company and Orange Tree Theatre present Michele Lee’s Rice, York Theatre Royal, tonight (13/4/2022) and tomorrow at 7.30pm. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.