[WORLD PREMIERE ~ AUS ~ IF YOU LOVE… TO REMINISCE]
Space Theatre, Fri 7 Jun.
Anna May Wong was Hollywood’s first Chinese movie star. She gained fame in the silent movie era and appeared in one of the first feature films made in colour, The Thief Of Baghdad (1924) with Douglas Fairbanks. It was, however, Hollywood in the 1920s so she was constantly being handed roles that were all from a similar stereotypical (and racist) palate. Frustrated, she went to Europe and shared theatre stages with Laurence Olivier, became friends with Marlene Dietrich and Leni Riefenstahl, and had an affair with director Tod Browning (Freaks and Dracula) when she was under age and interracial relationships were frowned upon.
Hollywood only offered her roles like ‘daughter of Fu Man Chu’. There were anti-miscegenation rules that prevented inter racial relationships (and the cinematic portrayal of such) which meant there were a lot of Caucasian actors playing ‘orientals’ in movies at the time. At the same time a trip to China saw her called ‘too American’, she couldn’t catch a break. She was not a Monroe-level star, but appeared in over 20 movies and got a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame in 1960. Wong became a dealer in Chinese art, while her drinking got worst and her health declined. Less than a year after getting that star on Hollywood Blvd, she died from a heart attack at her home in Santa Monica. She was just 56 years old.
Amazing story right? A story more people should know about certainly. Enter, Dragon Lady: The Many Lives & Deaths Of Anna May Wong. Wong’s story is told by the vivacious and talented Fiona Choi (from TV shows The Family Law and The Let Down) through stories and musical numbers. Some of the songs are repurposed contemporary numbers like Iggy Pop/David Bowie’s China Girl, Gordon Lightfoot’s If You Could Read My Mind and original songs by Andrew Patterson and Simon (Yon from Tripod) Hall. The inclusion of These Foolish Things (Remind Me Of You) is a lovely touch as it is believed that it was written about Anna May Wong by Eric Maschwitz after they parted ways. It was a big hit for Ella Fitzgerald and in the ‘70s for Bryan Ferry.
Choi embodies the life of Wong, the ups and the downs, the determination and frustration. With a little help from a tight three-piece band and a screen flashing images of Wong and silent movie-style dialogue slides to great effect. The staging is simple, elegant, with just some Chinese lanterns and a drink cart for flavour. Wong was clearly an exceptional artiste, performing songs in a dozen languages when on tour (including Australia in the late ‘30s) and Choi does a great job including You’re The Top (in German) this evening.
Earlier in the evening I had seen Taxithi, a piece about Greek women being treated unfairly in another time and place, essentially out of their own control in many respects. I was struck by the similar tone of the two pieces and only to realise that they were both written by Helen Yolis-Patterson.
There were two stand out set pieces for me tonight; the first being the ‘post death’ song One Satin Page (What A Little Girl Sees), which was moving and poignant. But when talking about those Caucasians playing Asian roles, the conceit of showing a slide show of some of those actors in those roles (Brando, John Wayne, etc.) while Choi sings Yellow by Coldplay in Chinese, is it simultaneously funny, sad and inspired.
Dragon Lady – The Many Lives & Deaths Of Anna May Wong continues at Space Theatre, Adelaide Festival Centre, from 5pm until Sat 8 Jun.
Book at BASS on 131 246 and adelaidecabaretfestival.com.au. Click HERE to purchase your tickets.
Image courtesy of Matt Kimpton @ Verver Portraits