Diana Nguyen’s alter ego Kim Huong returns in the 2013 Melbourne International Comedy Festival show PhiL and Me. When Kim reveals all in her memoir Dragon Mum: How to control your wild teenage children, her son Phi runs away from home. Kim tries to replace him with his Aussie friend Kevin before discovering that Phi is irreplaceable. With a seize the day ‘by the ball’ attitude, Kim sets out to find him. She meets a copper, a drama teacher, an immigration officer, and a Salt Club bouncer along the way. When the search fails, she must hide the shame of losing her son from her overly competitive sister, Number Eleven.
In this year’s production, Fiona Chau, aka ‘Phi’, gives way to new co-star Steve McPhail who has the difficult task of introducing eight new characters. McPhail as Number Eleven is particularly enjoyable to watch: not only does he maintain the illusion of an ageing Vietnamese ma, he also acts as a funhouse mirror for Diana Nguyen’s Kim Huong. The two goad each other towards new lows. When Number Eleven tells Kim off for blathering their secret to raising children, Kim gloats because this will prevent her sister’s grandson from getting a top ENTER score and thus entry into med school.
With much of the laughs coming from mispronunciations, physical humour, and audience participation, it’s easy to mistake PhiL and Me for being slapdash. Not so. It isn’t a coincidence that Kim Huong’s book has echoes of Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mum in both content and title. In two words, the PhiL and Me team encapsulate the pride of the working-class Vietnamese, one-thousand-year-old tensions and rivalry with China, as well as a blatant disregard for copyright laws.
Nor is Steve McPhail’s aside, about how none of the themes in Dragon Mum are of any interest to him, a throwaway line. McPhail eludes to a dilemma that Diana Nguyen and other ethnic artists face. Does the general public appreciate their art for what it is or is it just a fad?
Some of the impromptu sketches have purpose as well. Whilst the set up between Kim, her ‘husband’, and an immigrations officer seems like a gimmick to get the audience involved, it is also an inversion of a previous confrontation with another figure of authority, a copper. With the copper, the miscommunication is unintentional. With the immigrations officer, the miscommunication is cultivated. When Kim is asked her husband’s birth date, she answers obliquely, ‘Sixty-year-old Virgo Dragon’, making the most of her disenfranchised first-generation migrant status.
Unfortunately, by overturning one stereotype, Nguyen panders to another—Vietnamese shiftiness. It’s hard to create ethnic characters completely free of typecasting; the best one can do is aim for credibility. What separates PhiL and Me’s Kim, Phi, and Number Eleven from the clichés is not their actors’ ethnicity, but rather the choice of detail in the script. References such as dodgy birthdates (‘1978, not 1968’) and Tommy’s Hairdressing, Springvale, can only come from the inside or from close involvement with the community. Inspiration is drawn from the cast and crew’s friends, former students and families, in particular Diana Nguyen’s mother.
After disappointing her own mother as a teenager, Nguyen must find making fun of dragon mums cathartic. Judging from the delight of a predominantly second-generation Australian audience at the Clayton show, it seems like they too found catharsis. But don’t worry if you don’t speak Vinglish, the funny still translates.
PhiL and Me had a season at the Melbourne International Comedy Festival 28th March – 18th April, 2013 – www.phiandme.com.au
For all upcoming gigs with Diana, check out her website at www.diananguyen.com.au