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An Asian, an Aboriginal and an Islander take on white Australia in Nakkiah Lui’s new play

In 'How to Rule the World', Michelle Lim Davidson disarms audiences with satire to check their own racism.

Justin Tam

Michelle Lim Davidson is an actor, known for her work on the ABC office satire Utopia, Jane Campion’s Top of the Lake, and the acclaimed film from Ivan Sen’s Mystery Road series, Goldstone. She’s also a host on Play School, and has been part of its diverse cast since 2012.

Her latest work is in Nakkiah Lui’s biting, political and disarming play with Sydney Theatre Company, How to Rule the World. She plays Zaza Park, the descendant of wealthy immigrants who now works as a lawyer for one of the ‘big four’, and alongside Vic (played by Lui herself) and Chris (Anthony Taufa). They groom a generic white male into being their puppet for infiltrating Australian politics to incite the change they want to see.

As a Korean-Australian, it’s rare for Lim Davidson to be able to play herself. “I've only ever auditioned twice for two Korean characters,” she said. “Everyone else is Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese—the end ... I play roles where the cultural background doesn't matter to the character.” She shared with us what she wants people to learn from the play, how anger can be used to fuel change, the burden people of colour carry in the arts, and why Play School is one of the most progressive shows on Australian television.

For people of colour seeing the show, it's a sigh of relief. It’s saying things we’ve been wanting to in the arts, in politics, for a long time. How does it feel to perform that?

It's huge. We had so much work to do—we didn't have time to, in a weird way, discuss what it meant for myself, Anthony and Nakkiah to be leading this play at the Opera House, for our voices in the rehearsal room to be more important and more valid, that people had to listen to us because it was our experience.

It was a collaborative process between Paige [Rattray] the director, Nakkiah and Polly [Rowe], who's the Literary Manager of STC. They let us have quite a voice and that's not something that we experience as people of colour working in this industry. It's empowering.

During rehearsals, we found it emotional and I cried a lot and so did Anthony, because it means so much to us personally. We know what it means for that community as well. We feel very—I don’t know if privileged is the right word—we take it quite seriously and we're happy to be able to do something supportive of that community.

‘Privileged’ is a complex topic, because Asians are often considered to be the next most privileged group to white people. How does the play address this?

We joke in the play that for Zaza, her racial identity doesn't matter as much because she’s privileged. There’s a joke about Asians that the drug dealer character makes: "You think that white people hate Asians? Not since 1992".

People think, “Asian people are fine, we accept them now,” but don’t realise we’ve suffered racism and prejudice in our time.

I can't play anyone that looks like me; I play roles where the cultural background doesn't matter to the character. In the play ... I get to be myself.

You’ve done a few shows with the national broadcaster ABC—UtopiaPlay School. What has your experience been in the broader television and film industry?

I had a meeting with an agent that wanted to sign me and they said, "Look, you're never going to work on television. It's not us; it's the networks, it's the casting directors. You're never going to have a career because of the way you look."

That was just the reality. I'd already booked my first television job, and I remember telling them and they were like, "Are you sure?" They couldn't quite wrap their heads around it.

When people would say to me, “you just need to do a generic Asian accent it doesn't have to be specific, do your generic Asian accent,” I thought, "what does that even...mean?" People don't ask for that kind of stuff anymore, people have moved on for the better.

The big thing now is the criticism of diversity in casting: “you're only doing that role because companies want to do diverse casting. A white person could be doing that role and they would be better.” For a lot of my friends, people of colour, one of the big discussions I've had quite a few times with them is Asians are held to a much higher standard. I can't be bad. I have to always be at the top of my game because otherwise the criticism filters in and it's not helpful.

You can lose perspective of what you're fighting against and who you're fighting for. You don't have to just be aligned to one kind of thing.

‘White privilege’ suggests you enter life with a head start, and as an Asian you’re expected to be smart and work hard to keep up.

It’s the stereotype. I’m Korean—originally, Zaza was scripted as Chinese. [The character was changed to Korean to reflect this]. In my whole professional career, I've only ever auditioned twice for two Korean characters. Everyone else is Chinese, Japanese, or Vietnamese—the end.

I’ve played a few different ‘Asian’ characters but there are no roles for me. I can't play anyone that looks like me; I play roles where the cultural background doesn't matter to the character. In the play I get to be a Korean-Australian woman, I get to be myself. Name me an Australian new work that has starred a Korean person. It’s not a thing.

On screen, people of colour are often pressured to pretend to be the next closest thing—Koreans pretend to be Chinese, brown people get cast broadly as Indian, Latinx, or even black. This completely erases their own identity. For the three of you in How To Rule, your characters are going through their own individual struggles. How do you think people of colour should team up in the real world?

There is this argument within the play that you can lose perspective of what you're fighting against and who you're fighting for. You don't have to be aligned with just one kind of thing, like something is just ‘feminism’ and that's your thing and that's the end. You can be supportive of different, marginalized communities. It’s about remaining open and supportive of your fellow people of colour. We have a bit of a shorthand, anyway.

Some people need to recognise within themselves their own prejudices and bias. Nakkiah and I have talked about it, people are more outraged about being called racist than they are about actual racism itself. It's mindblowing. It’s about being supportive, listening, remaining open and not presuming anything. That’s the best way to work together and move forward.

You can be defensive, or you can say, “okay, a person of colour just told me I’m being racist—why did they say that, what could I learn from this?” Being defensive and shutting off is not going to be helpful to anyone.

People are more outraged about being called racist than they are about actual racism itself.

Nakkiah is great on Twitter. People responding to her often slam her for being ‘angry’. It ignores the fact that people, especially brown and Indigenous, have a right to be angry.

Whether it’s with race or gender, people will say, “You can’t be angry, you can’t be upset. You’ve got to be methodical, clinical, you’ve got to set out very pragmatically why these things are a problem.” Why? It’s upsetting. And it makes people sad, and angry. Why do we have to define how we express their feelings? That person has a right to be angry, and we hold these people of colour, especially those with a voice, to such high standards.

You are at a position now where you’re speaking out for a lot of people of colour. Do you feel a burden? Do you feel empowered, or tired by it?

I always feel like I can’t let the team down, because I don’t want those criticisms: “Michelle’s only in that role because she’s Korean, they wanted to do something diverse.” I never want that to come into play. I don’t mind people criticising me personally—“we don’t like her acting”—that’s different. Working in mainstage productions, I feel like I have to be at the top so people can’t speak like that anymore.

I’m not tired by it, sometimes I get tired explaining. Why do I have to explain this? Why can’t you learn, or why aren’t you listening to what I’m saying to you? I like to think I’m a patient person. I try to step away for things for a couple of days, gather my thoughts.

We don’t have three months to prepare; we have five weeks of rehearsal to get a very ambitious piece up. I understand it’s not a perfect piece of theatre, but there’s a bigger picture for what it represents and what it’s trying to do. If that’s what they’re going to criticise—a bit of mess here, that bit was slow there—you’ve completely missed the point of the whole play.

How do you want people to respond to this play?

I just hope there’s a part of the play where they think, “I hadn’t thought about racism like that, and how it would affect that person personally,” or, “I didn’t think that was possible, and if there’s some kind of prejudice I have, I can change that.” I can only hope people listen and find one thing to hang onto that they didn’t know.

We talk a lot about Treaty in the play. Nakkiah helped all of us understand what it meant for her personally, and how she thought Treaty could be. Even if it’s understanding that a little more and being engaged with it, just being open to hearing something they might not have heard before. That’s all I can ever ask for.

You're also a host on Play School—you have this massive children’s TV show where a Greek [Alex Papps] and a Korean are watched by millions of children and their parents. Did you realise you were faces of enormous migrant communities on TV?

One of the things all Play School presenters are most proud of is how diverse that show is. We have the most diverse main ensemble cast on TV. The show’s always done that from the beginning. We have multiple Indigenous, Asian, and Indian presenters. A woman told me about her daughter—Play School came on TV, and her daughter was screaming, she came running up to her. “Mummy, there’s a girl that looks like you on television. She’s got your eyes.” And she said, “Our eyes all look the same.” It was the first time her child had seen herself reflected on television.

I don't take that responsibility lightly. It means a lot to me and to people in different families. I’ve been doing that job for six years now and I don’t take it for granted. It’s really special and unique. I love doing it.

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