Wednesday, October 7, 2009
Who's That Chik? Pt. 1.
(Candy Bower's Who's That Chik? has ended, so I'm pulling together a review of the show and an interview I conducted with her a few months ago to discuss the piece and some broader issues in Oz today.)
About five years ago I used to tell anyone who’d listen that Sista She were the most important act in the country. This confused a lot of people because the duo was a hip-hop/comedy outfit. But then they pulled out The Naked MC, a show that so floored me I went out and gathered about ten friends to go back the next night (I don’t even have ten friends so I don’t know how I managed that). These weren’t aficionados of theatre or politics or activism, but they did enjoy hip-hop and comedy so I knew they’d enjoy the night. Which they did.
But like me, they were blown away by the fact that A-grade MC-ing and dope beats gradually morphed into a brutally hilarious dismantling of sexism, homophobia and racism in the comedy and hip-hop industries of Australia. Crucially, Sista She did this from within – MC Rasheda Eda and Sheila Ela MC confronted their own prejudices rather than simply attack those of others, and in doing so forced the audience to question how much they were themselves complicit in the same things.
Most of all, it was brilliantly funny and the tunes (by Busty Beats) were the kind of thing I’d pay money for. The pair have never officially split but they’ve been pursuing their own projects for a while. Sheila (Sarah Ward) stayed in Melbourne and has presented her more recent character Yana Alana around town for a few years; Rasheda (Candy Bowers) has been living back up in Sydney for a while and recently returned to Melbs for a short season at the Arts Centre. Who’s That Chik employed a similar mix of comedy and hip-hop (or the hybrid form Bowers now calls hip-hop theatre) to turn the focus of attack on racism in the performing arts industry in Australia, and if you missed it, well, sucks to be you.
Who’s That Chik? is an intensely personal piece that uses Bowers’ own life story to explore the challenges a big brown girl faces living here today. Actually, ‘challenges’ is a lazy term. Bigotry, institutionalised prejudice and a weak-willed fear of even discussing the situation is more what she faces, and she faces it every day.
I interviewed Bowers earlier this year when she was down for a day before zipping off to the UK after winning a British Council Realise Your Dream award (she’s off to New York and then Manchester soon, I think).
Bowers isn’t an outsider to theatre culture. She was accepted into NIDA (her audition routines are a great inclusion in Who’s That Chik?) and during one number she makes sport of the fact that her status as a token non-Anglo means that other artists of colour would have been denied a place since the institution had made their quota. But when she finished her studies at the institution, she was dealt a blow that still makes her eyes dewy on stage as she describes it.
In her NIDA graduating production, she was cast as “The Maid”. She graduated into the world of Australia’s performing arts as an African servant, in a comic relief role.
That, dear reader, is fucked.
Bowers is a better performer than many actors I’ve seen graduating from NIDA’s hallowed halls. But due to the fact that she’s a big brown girl, the opportunities offered her by the industry are negligible at best. Even as a toddler in dance class she was quietly pushed up the back; by the time she made it to the peak dramatic academy in the country, nothing had changed. And for some reason nobody’s really allowed to mention that.
When Julian Meyrick penned his attack on the way the critical industry pointedly ignored his indigenous casting of Pinter’s The Birthday Party this year, it brought down a shitstorm of defensive wrath. Little of it actually addressed the more salient issues he raised (which were admittedly couched in vitriolic terms and the occasional ad hominem attack). A particularly touchy point was his assertion that the cast were personally upset by the way they were treated by critics. The obvious response is to reply that actors are all subject to tough criticism, and an indigenous cast can’t expect to be handled with kid gloves if they want to be taken seriously. But this is blind ignorance regarding the extraordinary fact that these actors are coming from a very different world from the average MTC performer, and suddenly making it onto an Arts Centre stage doesn’t level the playing field in any way.
Bowers makes a similar comparison to the makeup of the STC’s residency program. “A young girl who came out of NIDA a couple of years after me with an African background is in that company and what she’s experiencing is very strange. They’re not talking about the fact that they have cast a couple of people from culturally diverse backgrounds – Asian backgrounds, African backgrounds – they’re just going yep, we’re all in this company, this is grand.
“Dudes, it’s like putting a band-aid on a brain tumour. You’ve not been inclusive, or allowed in people of colour for the entire time you’ve been a company, and now you think it’s all mended. These people are going to experience shit from the press, they’re going to experience shit from patrons, and they’re going to have to deal with the fact that the only other people of colour in the theatre are changing the bin-liners.”
Being political isn’t fashionable, and people tend to get antsy when the issue of race comes up. “When I go and see work being cast I’m looking at the whitest smallest actor being cast. That is the aesthetic. It’s mind boggling at times that people are trying to say it’s something else. That is the agenda. Directors like Julian Meyrick would get in trouble for ‘having an agenda’ by trying to cast diversely or to cast indigenous artists. Why isn’t anybody getting in trouble for always casting white people?”
What affected me most about Who’s That Chik? was the ironic/tragic element of Bowers’ ‘big dreams’. As she points out during the piece, if she’d grown up in South Africa - her parents’ old home - she’d probably have never imagined she could make it as a theatrical performer. Overtly racist barriers don’t allow you to dream big – but is the situation better in Australia? Here, we can dream of achieving amazing things, and even a Blasian chick (“part black, part Asian, with a little Caucasian”) from North Dandenong can dream of appearing on stages and screens across the country.
The tragedy is that dreams don’t equal opportunities. There are plenty of the former, but the latter are in short supply. Nobody really talks about that disparity, since in a liberal Western democracy the only limits to what you can achieve are the ones you impose upon yourself. Dream big and anything is possible. Make it happen. Just do it. And ignore the fact that no matter how hard you try, someone in a boardroom or casting studio or funding panel meeting is deciding your fate for you.
“The night I did [Who’s That Chik?] in Sydney where a lot of those guys were there, the gatekeepers… it was tense. It’s hard having that kind of tension in a comedy show! People who can’t laugh at themselves… tricky. Those guys have almost got to see a show with a whole bunch of kids in the house so they can see the reflection and then they get it. As opposed to going ‘She’s telling me I’m racist and I’ve been holding up the structure that’s racist. That makes me feel shit; that makes me angry; who do you think you are?’”