The opening night of Miss Peony 牡丹小姐, a bold new comedy set within the world of a beauty pageant, is fast approaching. Exploring connections to family and culture, this landmark play will be presented in three languages: English, Mandarin and Cantonese.
“We have opened the door to attract a more diverse audience,” actor Gabrielle Chan, who plays the character of Adeline, tells me between performances in Sydney.
“Every single session we have had a lot of Chinese people in the audience. My character speaks in Cantonese and when the audience laughs at particular points, I know there are Cantonese people in the audience.”
Within the glamour and sparkle of the pageant set is a screen that displays dialogue in all three languages.
“The title person plays a big role in the play, they have to understand all three languages. This is especially important when it comes to jokes,” Gabrielle explains.
“If the audience has started laughing before I have finished my line, I know the subtitles are faster than me. And if I go on too long I can also kill the joke.”
“It actually requires a lot more work than a normal play,” she laughs.
Adeline, the character Gabrielle plays, is a former pageant winner who wants her granddaughter Lily, a young woman living in Australia, to follow in her footsteps.
“Adeline is not like a normal grandma. She has gone through a lot as a child, like war and starvation, so it means she believes in tough love. She wants Lily to improve and make progress in life and she thinks tough love will help.”
Lily, meanwhile, like many Chinese diasporic peoples, feels displaced and pressured.
Playwright Michelle Law has said that Miss Peony 牡丹小姐 is “about the trauma of experiencing exclusion from all sides, and the ways in which we cope with the unspoken judgement and elitism from our own peoples when racial divides demand very narrowed definitions of cultural authenticity”.
“It’s also an exploration of intercultural racism and lateral violence among Chinese nationalities. We may be the world’s largest ethnic group, but we are not a monolith. The same can be said for our languages.”
This sense of pressure and responsibility sits at the core of Adeline and Lily’s relationship.
“At the beginning,” Gabrielle elaborates. “Adeline and Lily don’t communicate that well. There is a generation gap and cultural differences. Adeline wants Lily to honour her legacy and to uphold traditional Chinese values of femininity and delicacy. It isn’t until Adeline appears to Lily as a ghost that they are able to understand each other better.”
After a packed season at the Belvoir St Theatre in Sydney, Miss Peony 牡丹小姐 will play in Melbourne before its season at the Canberra Theatre Centre.
“It’s such a wonderful play,” Gabrielle concludes. “We have so much Chinese Australian talent here, all the people in it are fantastic. And it’s so funny. Everyone can get something from this play.”