Presenting a tri-lingual show for the first ever time on a Sydney mainstage, Miss Peony is a glitzy, glamorous and slightly-unhinged dive into the world of beauty pageants, featuring projected captions in English, Cantonese and Simplified Chinese simultaneously throughout the show.
Both written by and starring Michelle Law, the play is described as an inter-generational comedy for 21st century Australia.
Lily’s grandmother was a beauty queen back in Hong Kong. She doesn’t care that times have changed and that Lily lives in a new country and a new century. She realises that Lily’s caught between worlds, and prods her to enter the Chinese community beauty pageant, the highly competitive Miss Peony. She won’t take no for an answer. And to make matters worse, she’s a ghost.
For actor Jing Xuan-Chan (SBS’s The Family Law) the work is a moving and hilarious story with strong and vibrant characters.
“I was so excited to take part in Miss Peony,” says Xuan-Chan. “The world leapt up off the page for me when I first read the play. It also gives me the biggest thrill and is incredibly significant to be on stage with an all-Asian cast (performing in Cantonese and Mandarin too!) and to have so many Asian creatives in the room.”
Xuan-Chan plays the role of Marcy Liang who is one of the contestants competing in the Miss Peony pageant. She is a businesswoman helping run her family’s company and is, says Xuan-Chan, quite strong-minded, can be aggressive and is willing to do what it takes to win.
“I enjoy Marcy’s journey throughout this play and the way that the friendships and relationships she forms with the other women help soften her and make her more comfortable with being who she is. Some of the qualities I admire about her are her drive and her loyalty to family.”
A couple of the central themes explored in Miss Peony are those of family and identity. “Michelle describes in such a relatable, humorous, and moving way the struggle that can exist when you are trying to carve your own way and find who you are whilst also being tied to family loyalty and obligations,” says Xuan-Chan. “On top of this, the characters in this show are also challenged by the societal demands placed on them by both Asian and Australian cultures.”
Xuan-Chan would love audiences to leave the theatre feeling like they’ve been seen and celebrated in some way and perhaps to spark some discussion around the given culture’s construction of femininity or womanhood.
“I remember being an audience member at Michelle’s first play, Single Asian Female, and walking out from the show feeling like I immediately wanted to hug my family and tell them I love them,” says Xuan-Chan about Law’s 2017 work. “The family themes in Miss Peony might also strike a chord with some of our audiences and if it prompts conversation or connection with parents/grandparents/siblings that would be wonderful!”
A fabulously exciting tri-lingual work, Xuan-Chan acknowledges that it is quite rare to hear other languages spoken on stage in Australia and so she finds it hugely special and significant that the play will be performed in English, Cantonese, and Mandarin. “Language is such a core part of any culture so I think there will be a deeper sense of resonance and immediacy for Chinese speaking audiences being able to hear dialogue in their language,” she says. “For me personally, I’m so excited that my parents will be able to hear large portions of this show performed in their native language and feel that the show in some ways is specifically for them.”
After two false starts because of COVID, it’s an exciting time for everyone and every stage of the process. Xuan-Chan describes the rehearsal room as joyful with, she says, such a special, warm, silly, talented team that she looks forward to playing with and learning from every day. “One of the most enjoyable challenges for me in this process has been learning to dance. Dance is something completely new for me but I really enjoyed diving in and found it a lot of fun!”
Since her graduation from the VCA in 2006, Xuan-Chan has worked on both stage and screen from the MTC to Malthouse and Red Stitch, to name a few, to TV credits including City Homicide, Glitch and Winners & Losers – but which one excites her the most?
“They are quite different mediums but I love that in the theatre it is live and we get to tell the story from beginning to end. No show is exactly the same and we can keep exploring our characters and the play throughout the season. It is lovely to feel how a play can evolve from previews, to opening, to the end of the run. Also, having an audience and their energy in the space with us is always so fun and exciting!”
Having grown up in Sydney, Xuan-Chan is now enjoying being Melbourne based – “It is so lovely that I get to spend some time here this year.” Later on in the year, though, she’ll be back in Sydney to work on a play called, Oil, with the Sydney Theatre Company.
Miss Peony is a show that has something for everyone and is relatable regardless of age, cultural background, or gender.
“It is incredibly touching and moving but also so silly and hilarious, I think it’ll be a really fun and special night in the theatre. For our Chinese audiences：来吧！我们欢迎您！！”
July 8 – 29
Following the world premiere at Belvoir, Miss Peony will tour to Arts Centre Melbourne from 2nd to 20th August, Canberra Theatre Centre from 23rd to 26th August, Merrigong Theatre Company from 30th August to 2nd September, and Geelong Arts Centre from 6th to 9th September