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Review: STC’s Going Down

Michelle Lee’s breakthrough play is a breath of fresh air against imposed, cookie cutter ethnicity narratives.

STC Going Down Catherine Davies photo

To sell, or sell out?

That is the question Michelle Lee sets out to answer in her play, ‘Going Down’.

Her protagonist, Natalie Yang, is a writer. Her play opens in a book talk at a library in regional Victoria, where she chats about her newly released memoir, ‘Banana Girl’. Funnily enough, the old ladies in the audience don’t seem all that interested in the chronicles of Natalie’s sexcapades. Why can’t she be more like Lu Lu Jayadi, poster-child for the Asian-Australian community, and tell a nice, heart-wrenching story about fleeing brutality and persecution in the motherland to start a new life here?

Everywhere she turns, Natalie is harassed with this barrage of unsolicited advice about what a woman of colour should, or should not, be sharing with the world. But to hell with a weepy story about the migrant experience she never had. Is Natalie’s own life not ‘authentic’ enough? In her desperation to battle against the currents of societal expectations, we see Natalie’s dogged rejection of crucial features of her identity to give other aspects room to breathe.

Going Down is Lee flipping the bird to everyone who sees an Asian and doesn’t bother to look beyond their Asian-ness. Natalie Yang is Asian— but that’s beside the point. That doesn’t give anyone the right to lump her in with the Lu Lu Jayadis of the world.

Catherine Davies as Natalie is brazen, loud and unfaltering. Her high-energy performance is a slap in the face to anyone not paying attention (and to those that are, but in a good way). Supported by an ensemble cast who seamlessly transition between characters, the true strength of this production is in its actors. Dynamic use of the set augments their fluid character and scene changes—a bed pulls out from the bottom of the stairs, the back wall doubles as a shower screen, and instant messages, emojis and Natalie’s self-doubting spiral down the Google wormhole project onto the walls. All but Davies rotate through an eclectic mix of characters who add humour, life and warmth to Natalie’s insurmountable task of grappling with cultural fetishisation and the taboo surrounding sex positivity.

Lee cloaks these themes in crude comedy—sprinkling nudity, sex and f-bombs liberally throughout to distract audiences from her critique of our own preconceptions. The playwright and her main character rebel in tandem against the art scene’s ‘pigeonholing’ of migrants as only capable of discussing migrant issues, but both eventually succumb to its accessible narrative. As Natalie entertains the idea of capitalising on her culture (with the help of intensely sugary lemonade and child-star rappers), we are encouraged to consider our own internalised biases.

Going Down resonates so strongly because Natalie is damn relatable. Does the average student have enough chutzpah to even entertain the thought of publishing a book titled ‘100 Cocks in 100 Nights’? Probably not. But her tenacity to be unapologetically herself, and only THEN seeing if anyone else actually cares, is something we would all like to think we are capable of.

Going Down plays at the Sydney Theatre Company until Saturday 5 May