Having brought us RICE last year at Griffin Theatre, Michele Lee returns to Sydney with a new play–Going Down at Sydney Theatre Company. The winner of both the Queensland and Victorian Premier’s Awards for Drama introduces us to Natalie, a struggling semi-autobiographical Melbournian memoirist who’s infuriated by the success of her rival Lu Lu. While Natalie refuses to write about her family experiences and culture, Lu Lu writes about nothing but hers. As Natalie doubles down with a vow to write a new memoir, 100 Cocks in 100 Nights, we’re asked the question: just what is the perfect migrant narrative? We recently got to ask Michele Lee and Catherine Davies, who stars as Natalie, about Going Down.
Michele, Going Down makes no secret of its parallels to your own life. Can you tell us about your relationship to her? Are Natalie’s struggles your own? Is she a being of your past?
MICHELE: Natalie is a bigger, brasher version of me. Seeing her so capably embodied by Cat (Catherine) and in the world that Leticia (Director) has created with the design team and actors makes me see her as even more a separate entity from me. They’ve done a great job in further fleshing out Natalie into someone who’s related to me but is also her own person. In saying that, and in acknowledging she does relate to a specific period in my life, it’s not as though I’ve somehow got all my shit together and outgrown my Natalie-ness. Probably in getting older you just realise that getting your shit together is always a work-in-progress so I can just accept that. I’m still prone to feeling wildly inadequate, to secretly wanting to write something that is a mainstream success, to feeling my stomach drop when I get yet another rejection email or when someone else wins the award/grant/prize, etc. It’s the world we live in, right? And although Natalie has been pitched as a millennial, I’m a Gen Y/Xer and we invented neuroticism, kids. Validation about success and about ‘making it’ – it’s capitalism, it’s this world around us.
Catherine, what’s it like to play Natalie? Does her life intersect with yours or are you completely different?
CATHERINE: There are many facets of Natalie that make her a total gift to play. She’s complex, flawed, and a total hurricane. She is intensely vulnerable, but also can be a complete monster. So in many ways, she feels more like a human being. That sounds like it should be a given when it comes to character creation, but when you throw these traits alongside “Asian”, “female” and “protagonist”, you realise that as a character she is an anomaly on the Australian stage. And I hope there are more works with characters like her, or another staging of this play- so that other Asian-Australian actors get a chance to play a character like her.
Where Natalie intersects with my life is the underlying expectation of who you could or should be as a Second Generation Australian whose parents fled something as traumatic as war. The experience of displacement is one that can be so hard to define. You have an ideological understanding of your parents’ experience, you feel the trauma, you woke up to their night terrors, but you will never truly understand it despite it being in your bones. It isn’t your own lived experience. That was something that I could never really unpack to peers who hadn’t grown up with a family history like mine. On top of all these things, Natalie and myself are women in their early 30s trying to find self-acceptance and a sense of belonging. I really envy her fearlessness in this pursuit.
“When I was younger, I was super angry about people seeing me in narrow ways. Now I see it more as something systemic and something that is societal, that goes beyond any one person. It’s about Australia’s general whiteness in its self-imagination, and a sort of simplistic iteration of people who sit outside of whiteness.”- Michele
Going Down questions migrant/minority stories – specifically how there only seems to be room for one narrative. As storytellers, have you felt trapped by this pressure to exist only in relation to your culture?
MICHELE: Yes of course. With Banana Girl, the memoir that I wrote and that I put into Going Down, I consciously wanted to include reflections on the different parts of what was going on for me in my life. Family was one part of it but not all of it, and so I didn’t focus on the familiar story about the struggles of assimilation, usually most obvious in the intergenerational conflict. It goes something like this:
“But Mummmmm, I want to have a sleepover, all my blonde friends are allowed to go.”
“No you can’t go, you’re not Aussie, you’re Hmong anyways, so you have to stay home, study, and then help me wash veggies for the market.”
“I hate washing veggies for the market, Mum!!!”
“Well we’re poor so get over yourself, and get washing or none of us eat.” etc etc.
I remember Googling reviews for Banana Girl and finding a very unflattering one. A reader had heard me on the radio, went and bought the book, wanted to read something exclusively about family/culture, hated it, and then felt so aggrieved that she posted online about her disappointment. I took it really personally and I also felt really pissed off at that individual. When I was younger, I was super angry about people seeing me in narrow ways. Now I see it more as something systemic and something that is societal, that goes beyond any one person. It’s about Australia’s general whiteness in its self-imagination, and a sort of simplistic iteration of people who sit outside of whiteness. I don’t feel as hemmed in or trapped, as in it doesn’t antagonise me that way as much anymore.
CATHERINE: What doesn’t serve anyone is an arts culture that teaches and encourages an audience to only be comfortable with artists working within those very specific parameters of acceptable migrant/minority storytelling. When I graduated from acting school there just weren’t roles for me, which turned out to be both a blessing and a curse. A curse because I had three years of unemployment at the start of my career, but a blessing because it forced me into working with independent companies where work was devised and therefore I was less at the mercy of industry and audience expectations.
Were there other ways to deal with this limiting pressure?
CATHERINE: I did a lot of work with initiatives created to foster marginalised and migrant voices and it was through this that I became hyper-aware of the conversation around these stories. I hope that within those programs I was able to encourage emerging writers to embrace diversity and individuality within the seemingly small pond of opportunities. And I hope my campaign, along with the amazing artists/facilitators I worked with, made space. It can be so hard to champion these things when you’re just trying to get your own work through the door. With that in mind, it’s also really important to acknowledge and respect those stories that broke through when there were NO minority voices in the mainstream canon and have allowed us to even have these rigorous conversations.
MICHELE: And I think more and more people – especially younger people of colour – are advocating very ably for change. You know, on the social media and stuff. So I think I am riding that momentum.
“With writing, with anyone, if there lacks diverse voices within a particular minority, we place an unreasonable responsibility on them to be the voice for an entire complex and multifaceted community.” – Catherine
Would you say the narrow migrant/minority story one we should leave behind – especially as we look forward to a future with more diverse stories?
CATHERINE: I think there is room for all the stories and I hope that is something that people can take away from the play. I want a culture that allows all storytellers to access their own agency and create work that feels right to them at that point in their lives – and not impose the expectation of others either way. Right now it feels very pertinent to subvert the paternalistic ideas of a “model migrant” – a very insidious form of racism that allows the majority to have control rather than embrace and allow folks from minorities their rights to individualisation. But it’s important to recognise that that protest is towards the consumer (at all levels) and not the onus of the writer. You can write whatever story you bloody well want, in whatever genre you want, with whatever subject matter you want. With writing, with anyone, if there lacks diverse voices within a particular minority, we place an unreasonable responsibility on them to be the voice for an entire complex and multifaceted community.
MICHELE: It can’t be about binaries or ultimatums or externalising that internalised racism/self-hate. The clichéd migrant story isn’t inherently of lesser value. I still want to hear about the past. There should be space for a spectrum of stories. That’s sort of where Natalie gets to, that she doesn’t need to be expending all her energy fighting with Lu Lu.
What is the one topic of conversation you find yourself wanting to overhear in the theatre foyer after each performance?
CATHERINE: I love hearing that the play has spoken to an individual whose story isn’t often represented on our mainstages. I love that and it feels like the first successful step of getting production like these off the ground. The other conversation I’d love to be privy to would happen in people’s minds as they reflect: “What is my part in the creation of this society?” Although the play moves into the more personal and familial aspects of Natalie’s life, there is a lot to unpack about the society she was raised in. Those existing in both the majority and minority cultures may not be able to assist in her relationship with her mother, but they do play a part in how she is able to express and explore her cultural identity and creative agency.
MICHELE: Hmm, I don’t know. Maybe I’m too busy checking out people’s Gorman, like Natalie would be doing. But seriously, I guess I’m most curious as to what they make of the second act, where Natalie gets a bit trippy.
Finally, what’s been your favourite thing about this production?
MICHELE: It’s got to be Josh Price’s outfit in The Wheeler Centre. The flowing layers, the pompom earrings that are so generically ethnic-folk-chic, the blunt glasses, the sandals, the whole vibe of him having proudly always travelled off the beaten track and thinking so fondly of how friendly all the locals are as he buys a local trinket from a dirty-faced but smiling barefoot child in the street.
CATHERINE: It’s so hard to choose. That it exists? That Michele Lee exists and now Natalie exists? That every night I can bring my mum onstage with me. That I can celebrate her and the experience of walking with her down the streets of Huế as she tells me stories of the war for the first time, me already double the age she was when she experienced it? The most incredible group of humans who brought this production together? The beautiful faces I stare into, of the four other intimidatingly brilliant and generous actors who make me cry from laughter and tenderness? #fuckinggrateful