Dragon Lady at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival
Anna May Wong: From immigrant’s daughter to Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star to international style icon, Anna May Wong’s career spanned silent film, talkies, Broadway, cabaret and television before she was thwarted by alcoholism and an industry unwilling to see past her Asian face.
Fiona Choi (The Family Law, The Let Down) captivates as Anna May in an intimate performance as she travels through Anna May’s past and tackles her demons. With its scandalous reminiscences and sparkling musical numbers, Dragon Lady provokes questions about the struggles of cultural identity and the heavy price of ambition.
Carly spoke with Fiona how Anna May's story inspired this exciting new work and the shifting cultural identity within the arts industry. Read the full interview below:
The last few years have seen you grace our TV screens in The Family Law and working as an actor on main stage productions on the East coast. However, you graduated from WAAPA and performed professionally in musicals such as RENT and Mama Mia! Then headed to America and landed great roles in film and television. How does it feel to be cycling back to your musical theatre roots? Did you initiate the concept for this cabaret show or did someone pitch you the idea?
I am excited (and slightly terrified) to be singing in front of an Australian audience again - people have been asking me for years when I would do another musical, but the perfect opportunity didn't present itself until now. We originally conceived of Dragon Lady as a play, but when we discovered Anna May Wong was also a prolific Cabaret performer (she even took her act to Melbourne's Tivoli Theatre in 1939) adding songs seemed the perfect way to tell her story. And with Julia Zemiro looking to shake up audience perceptions of what constitutes cabaret, the Adelaide Cabaret Festival seemed the perfect launching pad. The show is still a play that tells a compelling & mystical story, but with the added elements of breaking the fourth wall, an evocative score & songs, and interactive imagery projected onto a movie screen.
When did you first become aware of Anna May Wong and what is it about her that sparked the creation of this new cabaret work?
I first discovered Anna May Wong during my schoolgirl obsession with the Golden Years of Hollywood. I collected postcards & glossy books showcasing the Leading Ladies, and among all these photos of blondes & brunettes would be this one mysterious Asian. I was drawn to the fantasy that one (just one) actress of Asian descent could have made her mark in that glamourous world, and I always wondered why she wasn't more known and what happened to her. Of course, the tragedy of what happened to her was that there simply was no place for her - her Chinese face made it impossible for her to become a true Hollywood leading lady, and when she went to China thinking she would belong there they rejected her for being 'too American'. Turns out my friend Helen Yotis Patterson had discovered Anna May Wong in exactly the same way, and it was her idea to tell her story. Being Greek-Australian, Helen also related to that struggle of being on the outside looking in.
When preparing these questions I was fascinated by the diverse images of Anna May Wong - she exudes an aura that is charismatic and mysterious and it must have been a constant battle for her to forge her way in early Hollywood. What were the challenges for you as an actor as you formed the character of Anna May and how did you decide which parts of her life to feature?
Anna May was born in Los Angeles at the turn of the century, so finding her era-specific voice, accent and physical presence was definitely a fun challenge! And embodying the style of facial expression & gesture of the Silent Movie Era - so different from how actors work today. Deciding which parts of her life to feature in Dragon Lady was definitely a challenge - in the end we focused on the decisions she made & things she sacrificed to make her mark in a world that wasn't looking to embrace her for who she was. She had so much charm and drive. I'm hoping audiences will be inspired to go home and look up her life story for themselves, and see examples of her beautiful onscreen work...
Can you give us some hints about the songs you are performing in Dragon Lady? Originals (who wrote them) and some well-known? How did you select the songs?
We have a wildly eclectic mix of songs - I don't think any 2 come from the same genre, but they're all arranged exquisitely for piano, cello & woodwind by Andrew Patterson. Original songs are written by Andrew & Simon Hall (from comedy trio Tripod). As for the well-known songs, we went looking for lyrics that perfectly expressed each part of Anna May's narrative as written in Helen's text. I don't want to give too much away, but I will tell you there's jazz, pop, emo, David Bowie, Barbra Streisand, Cole Porter, Leonard Cohen to name a few.... Oh, and of course we're going to include the beautiful 'These Foolish Things', because rumour has it the lyrics by Eric Maschwitz were written specifically about Anna May Wong!
Do you find yourself relating personally to some of the facets of Anna May Wong’s life? What are the similarities and differences between you as two remarkable, talented and formidable Asian women artists separated by time but who still forge their own way in this industry?
Yes, I absolutely relate to Anna May Wong's life of trying to forge your own cultural identity in an industry that's always trying to label you - to that feeling of not being Western enough or Asian enough, of being seen only for the 'type' you represent rather than who you really are. Lucky for me Asians are better-represented from the top-down these days in the form of producers like Matchbox's Tony Ayres & Debbie Lee, directors like John Chu and writers/creatives like Benjamin Law and Kevin Kwan. But I think there is still a long way to go. The main advantage I have in today's world is that people are wanting to create the space for different types of stories to be told, and aware of needing to respect authenticity in that story-telling.
RAPID FIRE QUESTIONS:
Favourite production you have ever seen?
MTC's A View From A Bridge was incredible!
You’re getting on a plane tomorrow and you can go anywhere in the world, where do you go?
Back to NYC to visit beloved friends, eat, and be invigorated by the pulse of the city
Dream role to perform?
Imelda Marcos in HERE LIES LOVE
Plays or musicals?
Can't I do both???
A hobby you have beyond the theatre?
Pole dancing.... and jigsaw puzzles
What’s next for you after this show?
Golden Shield for MTC - an electrifying new legal drama by Anchuli Felicia King
Dragon Lady opens at the Adelaide Cabaret Festival on June 7 2019. You can get your tickets here.