I have always loved the theatre – but as a Vietnamese woman, it hasn’t loved me back | Stage

Before the curtains raised on the opening night of Laurinda in Melbourne earlier this month, I began to feel anxious.

Based on the award-winning novel by Alice Pung and adapted for the Melbourne Theatre Company stage by Diana Nguyen, the story follows a young Vietnamese-Chinese girl who wins an access scholarship to a prestigious private school. It is MTC’s first main-stage production written by a Vietnamese playwright, and the first time that the Vietnamese language has been spoken on their stage.

I had been looking forward to it ever since I got my tickets, probably ever since I fell in love with theatre as a child. Not only is Laurinda a Vietnamese Australian story, it is in my favourite genre: coming of age. It would be the first time I had ever seen a play written by a Vietnamese Australian woman. After years of feeling like an outsider in the theatre world, it almost felt too good to be true.

I can remember the exact moment when I first fell in love with theatre: it was at a production of The Lion King, when the lights dimmed, the orchestra roared to life and the animals came dancing down the aisles.

It was pure, unfiltered, astonishing magic. I fell wholeheartedly into the story: people wearing masks became lions, people riding bicycles became gazelles and people walking on stilts became giraffes. The stage opened and swivelled to convert the bare stage with its floor and three walls into a clifftop, a lake and an elephant graveyard. I left the Regent Theatre that evening fully transformed.

I enrolled in drama at school first as a high school elective, and ultimately as a VCE subject. But I quickly learned that while I loved theatre, it didn’t always love me back.

Sign up for the fun stuff with our rundown of must-reads, pop culture and tips for the weekend, every Saturday morning

At school, I went on excursions to theatres across Melbourne, including the MTC – but there were never any Vietnamese actors or characters on stage. I wouldn’t see a Vietnamese actor lead a main-stage play until almost a decade later, when I marvelled at Catherine Văn-Davies’s performance in Sydney Theatre Company’s 2021 production of Playing Beatie Bow.

My high school chose to perform Thoroughly Modern Millie when I was in year 12. I didn’t audition – my Vietnamese mother wanted me to concentrate on my studies – but I didn’t understand why a school with a majority Asian student population would choose a show well-known for its racist portrayals: from white woman Mrs Meers, in her yellowface and hair chopsticks, to her two Chinese henchmen called Ching Ho and Bun Foo, neither of which are Chinese names.

Then there was the production of Miss Saigon in my first year of university. It didn’t include a single Vietnamese person, either on stage or off. I had auditioned for this one – shamefully, before doing my research about its plot – and once I’d digested my rejection email, I read a statement from the crew about how they just couldn’t find any Vietnamese students to cast in it.

As I grew more familiar with the Asian roles available in theatre, patterns began to emerge: an Asian actor could play the best friend (Jeffrey Lu in Jasper Jones), the sex object (Kim in Miss Saigon) or the villain (Weselton in Frozen).

Maybe theatre wasn’t the place for me after all.

I stopped auditioning and acting shortly after that. Why should I continue to open up my own vulnerabilities for shows that didn’t even view their Asian characters in a complex light?

And yet, there was still something irresistible about theatre that would pull me back in. I still went to see shows and listened to cast recordings. I still had hope that things might change.

Ngoc Phan and Chi Nguyen in Laurinda
Ngoc Phan and Chi Nguyen in the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Laurinda. Photograph: Jeff Busby

Around 8pm, the doors to Laurinda finally opened and we all poured into the theatre. It was worth the wait. I watched Ngoc Phan and Chi Nguyen share small, poignant scenes as mother and daughter. I laughed as Phan danced unapologetically up and down the stage to 90s hits. My eyes welled as Lucy’s mother told her that while she had to stay vigilant and stay silent, Lucy didn’t have to.

I wish that everyone I ever met could see Laurinda. To understand how tiny, innocent yet racist comments add up over time and make you want to scream and curse with rage. To understand how no matter how Vietnamese you feel, you worry that growing up in Australia makes you a banana: yellow on the outside, white on the inside. To understand how the conversations you have with your family jump between languages, usually without you realising. To understand how you still think about Pauline Hanson’s speech, even though it happened in 1996.

I wish that everyone who has seen a production of Miss Saigon or any of those supposed classics could see Laurinda. To see what theatre about Vietnamese people could be like if we let Vietnamese people write more of it.

Mostly, I am excited by the promise of Laurinda: it shows that it is normal to be Vietnamese in theatre, that it is a place where we can belong and thrive. That we can shake off the racist stereotypes and cliches to create our own work, in which we are allowed to be complicated, joyful and alive. That one day, I might feel confident to return to acting because I can go to a casting call for a play written by someone like me.