Alice Pung’s young adult novel Laurinda opens with a simple epigraph: “Life is nothing but high school.” This quote, from the US writer Kurt Vonnegut, distils a confronting truth: the things that happen to us as teenagers can, and often do, follow us through our lives.
Melbourne Theater Company’s adaptation of Laurinda, co-written by comedian Diana Nguyen and Petra Kalive (who also directed), magnifies this phenomenon by splitting Pung’s much-loved book between past and present. Her protagonist, Lucy Lam, is both 15 and 35 in this version: we see her as a teenager in the 1990s as she navigates her eponymous private school, where an elite group, The Cabinet, reigns supreme. Always present is Lucy’s friend Linh, the only person who really gets her.
But we also see Lucy looking back, exploring all the ways in which being a member of the Asian diaspora in Australia, and experiencing casual and explicit racism, has irrevocably shaped and changed her. There is both light – the daggy joys of 90s music, an energetic cast – and darkness in this adaptation; it’s a little bit Mean Girls and a little bit Fight Club, with a distinctly Asian-Australian feel.
Nguyen remembers being a child in 1996 when Pauline Hanson made her infamous maiden speech in which she claimed that Australia was being “swamped by Asians”. When Nguyen began adapting Laurinda in 2020, waves of anti-Asian sentiment were again washing over the world after China was identified as the origin of Covid-19.
“#StopAsianHate was in the media, and just before the Comedy festival in 2020, I experienced racism in the comedy room,” she remembers. “That was living inside of me – how was it possible that in 2020, even though I was writing this play set in the 1990s, it was still traveling through the generations?”
The idea for the adaptation had been sitting on the shelf for years when Kalive started at the MTC in 2020, right as the first lockdown hit. She tore through the novel in 24 hours; as a Greek-Australian, she could relate to some of the feelings it described. Kalive was keen to adapt it, and when it came to a co-writer, Nguyen immediately came to mind. “I thought there was a fabulous humor in the work and lived experience that Diana would be able to speak to and understand intrinsically,” she says.
The intersection of class and race is a recurring topic in Pung’s work, which the author feels Kalive and Nguyen inherently understand. “They have the insight that some people don’t have if they don’t live, or don’t have parents or family, who come from a very working class background, and then are thrust into this world of privilege,” says Pung .
Nguyen had read Laurinda years ago. “I was quite triggered by it,” she says. “It’s not overt racism but subtle racism, and I felt Alice did such a great job of naming what Lucy went through. When I think about the courage of any young person who has ever faced racism, that’s what we’ve created – an enduring play about a woman who lives it through school, but it travels with her through her life.”
The comedian, who created the web series Phi and Me about a Vietnamese teenager and her overbearing mother, brings this same understanding of intergenerational dynamics to Laurinda. Scenes with Lucy’s refugee parents are spoken in untranslated Vietnamese – an authentic depiction of the domestic lives of immigrants.
“What’s so beautiful about this show, and the grounding parts, are the conversations Lucy has with her mum,” Nguyen says. “For me, to hear the Vietnamese language on stage is mind-blowing. The gift I’m giving to myself is to hear my home language spoken on stage.”
“Diana has always been really invested in realizing the home as three-dimensionally as possible to really ground Lucy as a fully rounded person, not just a caricature,” Kalive adds.
Both writers didn’t have the language as teenagers to describe or understand their experiences with racism or xenophobia; words and concepts such as “microaggression” simply didn’t exist in the everyday lexicon. “As a young person, you’re just trying to exist in the world and all your energy is spent trying to deal,” Kalive says. “I definitely don’t feel like my peers were equipped with the nous that young people are now.”
The production’s all-Asian cast of seven includes Fiona Choi (The Family Law), Gemma Chua-Tran (Heartbreak High) and Ngoc Phan (Boy Swallows Universe). Between them, they play 20 characters, not all of whom are Asian; it’s a bold and significant casting choice in an industry that still struggles with meaningful representation. The personal experiences of the actors also inform what unfolds on stage. “The script continues to respond and adapt to include their perspectives, which is incredibly powerful,” Kalive says.
There’s a brief nod in the play to another 1990s-set Australian YA novel as well recently adapted for stage: Looking for Alibrandi, which tells a similar story of a teenage girl from a migrant background struggling to find her place in a world of whiteness and privilege. These stories are more relevant now than ever, contributing to ongoing discussions about the place of private schools in Australia.
“Some of the culture of private schools needs to change – the insularity, the sense of entitlement,” Pung says. “It’s an unacknowledged and unaware sense of entitlement, which I hoped to bring out in the writing of Laurinda.”