Behind extraordinary ideas, there are extraordinary people. Dumbo Feather is a magazine about these people.
I’ve always enjoyed being on stage and making people laugh. And I never really questioned it becoming difficult as I grew up because I was always an overachieving kid. I assumed it would always be easy and wonderful. My greatest childhood memories involved watching children’s theatre at Monash Uni and playing theatresports with the South African kids on my block. I remember saying to Mum once, “I can have a cold, and then I go on stage and my cold disappears, and then I come off and I have a cold again.” The stage was this magical space. As I get to teach kids more and go on camps, I realise how much it means to them too. I’ll ask, “What do you love about drama class?” And they’ll always say stuff around making people laugh or making people cry. But number one is, “This is where I feel at home. Everywhere else I’m a freak and an outsider.” We can’t forget that in the arts. We need to hold onto our childhood beginnings. As a grown up I have observed a strange and disappointing pressure to conform and reflect the most normative version of society. “Make it accessible to the dominant culture, stay in your box, don’t do anything outlandish, don’t rock the boat,” you know? “Don’t cast interesting folks of different sizes, of different shapes, because people aren’t going to like it!” I can’t believe it’s still a bit revolutionary to cast a woman larger than a size-eight as a romantic lead, let alone someone in a wheelchair. We’re still dramaturgically at a point where if you’re different, you’re playing the outsider. You don’t grow interesting artists that way.
“One the Bear” is a show I wrote with and for the next generation of queens—teenage girls. And specifically, teenage girls of colour. It’s a gift for them, but also a challenge to them and to the folks around them to rethink the narrative going on around media culture in terms of beauty and cultural appropriation. I’ve been noticing more and more this kind of slide back with Lil’ Kim’s transformation and skin whitening cream being huge in Jamaica and across America and the UK, and here in Australia in the African community, and it’s like, “Okay, how did we get back here?” So that’s the impetus for “One the Bear”—it was devised through conversations and workshops with about a hundred teenagers in my hometown in Campbelltown over two years. Lots of marginalised kids, non-binary kids and kids with low socio-economic backgrounds. I saw them consuming media without curating their threads or feeds. I wanted to make them think about it. I wanted them to question, “Who’s in control here? Whose image is this? Whose gaze?”
It’s very rare still in Australia for young people to see work coming from that black female gaze as opposed to the white male gaze. So in turning the lens and letting it come from me and my culture and the young people that are still growing up in the neighbourhoods I grew up in, it’s a radical act. It’s a radical act of self-love actually. “One the Bear” is an allegorical work, it’s about assimilation, appropriation and loss of cultural identity; it’s a cautionary tale. The setting is a parallel universe or Bear/Hunter dystopia. The concept centres on Audre Lorde’s quote, “If I didn’t define myself for myself I’d be crunched into other people’s fantasies and eaten alive.” One gets eaten alive. She is thrown into the wild world of celebrity after she gets discovered rapping in a garbage tip. It’s a rags to riches story. In her plight to get her story to a wider audience, she loses herself, she is swallowed whole, she gets a hunter boob job, she gets a hunter nose. Her best friend has to pull her back and root her down to the ground and remind her of who she is. So the best friend, Ursula, she’s the more sickly one and seems less powerful. But then she’s the one who journeys through and stays really conscious and has to bring her friend back from the edge. This is essentially what the show is about—the power of friendship to get us back to ourselves. I remember watching that Amy Winehouse documentary and wishing, “I wish those friends were more central to her life than those crazy men, that boyfriend and her father.” Women in the media are constantly being crunched and eaten whole. In “One the Bear” I’m saying the antidote to all of this is one’s roots and that friendship connection, it’s that connection between people and the connection to the earth.
My first solo work was called “Who’s That Chik?” And it followed the path of my mother’s story of migration from South Africa to Australia with my story of being here and then trying to get me into the acting and theatre world. And then my experience getting into NIDA and coming out into an industry in 2001 that essentially didn’t want me. I was too big, too black and just did not fit the gaze. I spoke to over a dozen industry professionals and teachers and casting agents, and I got a really similar response which was either, “We’ve already got one black girl on our books and she doesn’t really get a lot of work,” or, “You just don’t look Australian enough. The Australian stage and screen are not going to cast you.” Which was a punch in the face, extremely painful because it was true. That’s the industry here. I grew up in apartheid South Africa where my parents were denied dental and school books on the basis of their skin colour. And now, for me in Australia, coming into an industry that says, “Your colour is a barrier to you getting work.” I’m like, “Oh. That’s what my parents experienced. That’s racism!”
Especially this claim that I don’t look Australian enough. If I’m here and I was born here then I do exist. Sometimes I find it really weird when people make excuses about the lack of inclusion in the performing arts, “Oh it’s a population issue.” Well, then we should have a lot more Asian folks on our screens and stages right? But I’m not here to convince the top. I’m doing it to galvanise my community. I’m more interested in talking directly to young people of colour and do what I call “inner circle work,” which is about loving yourself, decolonising, unplugging from this society that tells you you’re either not quite right or you’re very wrong. Turning that down as much as possible and coming closer and closer to your centre. Which is a daily chore. I need to do it too, because I get swept up in the craziness just like anyone else. I’ve been shooting a bit of TV over the last 12 months and the first thing I saw myself on was Newton’s Law, which was created by Every Cloud Productions with Claudia Karvan. I grew up watching Claudia Karvan and a bunch of Australian actors that are on that show. I got this great little comic role in it as a mediator (Episode 5). It was shown in-house at a cinema earlier this year before the TV premier. Post showing I found myself waiting for a car with this talkative intern from the script department and said to me, “Oh my god. You were so funny! I really loved your bit! So unexpected. I loved how they described your character early in the ep, so funny, but I just didn’t expect—”And she just stopped talking! And our Ubers came and I thought, Well, I didn’t expect to see myself either. ‘Cause I’ve never seen a plus-size Blasian woman from the African diaspora with an Australian accent on an Australian television show. It’s been a long time coming. When I watched my bit I thought I’d be really happy to finally have cracked a show in Australia (17 years after graduating from NIDA), but honestly it felt bittersweet.
So I’ve always had a sense that I would have to build the stakes and the opportunities myself. Fighting oppression is a daily task. I use the Alexander Technique to reframe—sometimes on the hour when I’m in unsafe or simply unconscious environments. And I’m finding the teams, which allows me to put my extraordinary vision out there—beyond the blind spots of the industry. And I have the right friends around me. I do counselling and I do massage and I treat myself, and I arrange flowers and keep Audre’s words close and I take my time. And I try to be in other parts of the world as much as I can. But I’m always unpacking and getting rid of the stuff, the gunk. Sometimes the pain in engulfing, crushing. You just have to sit in it, lie in it and tell people, “I’m in this right now.” That’s really the only way out.