Dragon Lady – The Many Lives & Deaths Of Anna May Wong @ Space Theatre, Adelaide 8/6/2019

Fiona Choi plays the role of Anna May Wong, the anglicised name of third generation immigrant Wong Liu Tsong, the first Chinese movie star rising out of Hollywood in the 1920s and mostly active until the early 1940s with her reminiscences of family and youth in America and Hollywood and then the greater world, contextualised with social and political changes, relating her own life to that of her film roles and embracing of the Dragon Lady stereotype that was placed upon her. Written by Helen Yotis-Patterson (writer and performer in Taxithi – An Australian Odyssey, also being staged as part of the Adelaide Cabaret Festival), this show demonstrates that the racial stereotypes thought to be long forgotten continue to be perpetuated in modern society.

As told as by Anna May Wong via recollections in non-linear fashion and accompanied by projections of quotations from Anna among film review excerpts, film posters and related imagery, this is a discourse on race, segregation, racism and loneliness while in the spotlight. There are telling history lessons regarding miscegenation and the separation of peoples and cultures beyond that of a film career hindered by general prejudices and the Motion Picture Production Code of 1934 with the changing cultural and social landscape in the dawn of WW2 touched upon when Anna briefly mentions being ignored by her friend Leni (Riefenstahl).

Accompanied by the surtitles “In the Office of Anna May Wong’s Agent” there is an amusing musical screwball comedy scene portraying Anna’s difficulties in losing Asian roles to Caucasians. This is later reinforced during the amusing but equally telling of the time surtitled Six Easy Steps To Play Oriental, when there is a rearrangement of David Bowie’s China Girl performed accompanied by screen projections of her Caucasian contemporaries (Katherine Hepburn, Mickey Rooney, John Wayne) in Asian roles, colloquially known as “Yellow face”. What is surprising (or maybe not) is the included projections of actors in recent times such as Scarlett Johansson and Hugo Weaving playing Asians. This portion of the show which draws significant applause demonstrates the continued prevalence of racism in modern society.

Anna reveals her cosmopolitan credentials as she name drops her contemporaries Cocteau, Lee Miller, Ernest Hemingway while listing off locations including Paris, New York, Harlem and London, adding Paul Robeson and Josephine Baker to her role call and Marlene Dietrich is referenced when Fiona Choi displays her singing versatility by singing in German as well as French. She is accompanied by a live trio including local musicians Emile Ryjochon on clarinets and saxophone, Hilary Kleinig on cello and led by musical director Andrew Patterson on piano who has composed original songs with Tripod’s Simon Hall (aka Yon).

There is an interesting mix of pre-existing songs, starting with the early seemingly extraneous use of the Alan Parsons Project’s Eye In The Sky, and other songs include Leonard Cohen’s Anthem and Coldplay’s Yellow ironically used to good effect although not immediately recognisable as it was sung in Chinese language. The final few songs including the Billie Holiday song These Foolish Things are performed with a smoky jazz club vibe.

Bringing the show to a close, Fiona reveals the details of Anna May Wong’s death (a heart attack from complications of liver disease) at 56 hears of age. Following this death, there is an almost encore, Andrew Patterson on guitar solely accompanying Fiona with a song in a Laurel Canyon-like style a la Joni Mitchell as she sings, Australian accented, her own personal biographical song about “what a little girl sees” looking to Anna May Wong and her achievements as an idol and role model when she was growing up.

This was an exceptional show, a significant achievement for Fiona Choi and her collaborators that far exceeded my expectations. My only complaint would be that this show was limited to only two performances and this is a review of the second, sorry.

Live Review by Jason Leigh