All of Me: The tale of a brown girl with big dreams
by Candy Bowers
I hope my reputation precedes me (I am that loud radical black woman at forums that makes middle-class white men feel uncomfortable and sparks controversy on twitter) but if not here’s some insight.
I describe myself as a writer, performer, theatre-maker, activist and booty-shaker. I’m a NIDA-trained actor and comedy is my forte. Over the last three years I have primarily created hip hop and spoken word theatre with my sister Kim 'Busty Beatz' Bowers under the label of Black Honey Company. We make fearless sticky performance. Our adult show Hot Brown Honey Burlesque which showcases women, cisgendered trans-folk and queer artists of colour has been the highlight of late night programming at Darwin Festival NT and Underground (World Theatre Festival QLD). Our kids' show MC Platypus and Queen Koala’s Hip Hop Jamboree has toured to over 250 schools across Queensland (2012-2013.) Playing a rapping marsupial to over 25,000 children is up there as a career highlight along with sharing the stage with Billie Brown in 2006 and going on Q&A (ABC) with Anthony Lapaglia in 2009. This year I’ve also worked with Queensland Theatre Company as an actor in the mainstage program and facilitator in the youth program. My current contract is as Ring-Mistress with Circus Oz. I’m learning how to climb the Chinese pole and experimenting with how much politics circus audiences can handle. I’m a political theatre artist. For me, that means politics is in the blood of the art making and it’s not enough just to be onstage. I don’t believe this is a position all artists of colour have to abide by (in fact I know many absolutely abhor the concept) but the way I see it, while there is still so little representation, power, status, complexity and depth of character matter. The roles written for people of colour to play on the Australian stage have an impact on our lives, our culture, on our identity and on young audiences.
"Radical simply means, grasping things at the root."
When I was at NIDA, I played 'ethnic' mothers, prostitutes, maids and mistresses. I did not perform one part on the stage in my natural Aussie accent. I am of Xhosa (First Nation black African), white European and Chinese heritage; my parents were both born in South Africa and were catergorised as 'Coloured' (mixed) under the Apartheid regime. I’m part black, part Asian with a sprinkle of Caucasian, so I identify as 'Blasian' (it’s a term I thought I made up but apparently Pharrell Williams used it before me.) My father came to Australia in 1973 seeking political asylum and my mother followed a year later with my eldest sister Kim, a babe in arms. Government officials tore up their passports when they left South Africa. There’s a lot more to this part of the story. Bob Hawke and the National Union of Students feature, along with Donald Wood... but let's cut to the exciting stuff. After initially moving around the west (St Albans/Sunshine), my parents finally settled in Dandenong Victoria on Wurunjeri country. My sister Tania was born in 1974, and five years later I came along. Then the party really started!
Life in the suburbs was sweet; there were two South African families in our neighbourhood along with some Greek, Italian and Dutch folks and an awesome (seriously bogan) crew headed by Aunty Bev. We call everyone’s parents Aunty and Uncle in South African culture so that’s how it was. Multicultural street and multicultural school. We made mudpies together, played 40/40 after dark and kissed under the swings at the park on top of the hill. I can probably attribute my acute love of skinny pale, ginger-haired boys to growing up in a lower socio-economic area; where migrant offspring and ex-convict kids ate fish and chips out of brown paper on the front steps of red brick houses every Saturday afternoon. As we grew older, we played impro games and put on plays and wrote songs and made up dance theatre shows. My mum sent my sisters and me to drama, dance and music class outside of school and (unfortunately for her) we got the bug; the Bowers girls headed for the Arts.
Between 15-17 years of age, I took part in summer school at NIDA and got to watch the showcases of the graduating acting students. By then my family had moved from Dandenong VIC to Campbelltown NSW (pretty much the same town in a different state, with more pokies) and so I travelled an hour on the train and 30 mins on the bus to get to Kensington. I was one committed, determined and passionate chubby brown theatre-geek and NIDA summer school was my every dream come true. There was a Q&A one year and I remember asking, "Is there a 'type' of person that gets into drama school? Like you know how Rugby players have got to have thick necks for the scrum? Is there 'type' for NIDA?”
After some riotous laugher (it was all in the timing), I was assured that looks had nothing to do with it and that the best would make it in!
Six years later, when I graduated from the three-year Bachelor of Dramatic Arts in Acting from NIDA at 22 years old, it became quite clear, quite quickly that looks had everything to do with being a jobbing actor in Australia. It seemed that if you could lose enough weight and grow your hair and get the blonde highlights, then you should, and most of my mates did. For the rest of us the options were limited. At that time there weren’t even what UK actors call 'corner-shop ethnic' roles and the few artists of colour getting work in Oz were the exception to the rule. Most of the folks of colour in my generation went overseas to find work. It seemed to me that Australian theatre wasn’t like my street or school.
To be honest, before I hit the industry I never questioned my love for Aussie theatre, for Belvoir St Theatre, for Sydney Theatre Company or Griffin Theatre Company, for Cate Blanchett, Geoffrey Rush or Hugo Weaving; for Sasha Horler, Deb Mailman, Jeremy Sims or Paula Arundell; for Hilary Bell, Louis Nowra, Stephen Sewell, Dorothy Hewitt or Andrew Bovell. I didn’t think about how people of colour were being portrayed or the type of roles allotted to us. I didn’t think about the absence of migrant stories or how this affected me. I truly believed that Australian theatre was interested in growing and developing into a rich and diverse space where people of colour could feel reflected, welcomed and celebrated. Where gingers and women from the African diaspora could fall in love, where actors, writers and directors would not be judged by the colour of their skin but by the contents of their hearts and given the opportunity to show the beauty of their art.
What does a brown girl with big dreams do when she realises that her love is unrequited?
She writes herself onto the stage. She claims the space because her parents didn’t go through hell and she didn’t go against their hopes for a stable work environment just to fail on entry. In 2002 on exiting NIDA without representation, I created something that used theatre and music to speak to people like me: bogans and migrants. My award winning hip hop comedy group Sista She was born out of a desire, passion and need to be all of me, to use all of me and to put all of me centre stage.
I wrote this spoken word piece 10 years ago for our first full-length show INNA THIGH - The Sista She Story. The show is about two young Aussie women who meet at the train station, form an extraordinary friendship and become a powerful hip hop duo against the odds. Sheila MC Eila the Harmonic Healer (created and performed by Sarah Ward) is a white girl from Sutherland Shire and Rasheda MC Eda the Sista Leader (my creation) is a black girl from Campbelltown NSW (I finally got use my own accent!) The characters are heightened versions of ourselves, a little younger with that dollop of naivety needed to create comedy. We toured the show to the Melbourne Fringe Festival, Sydney Opera House, Brisbane Powerhouse, Albury HotHouse Theatre and Adelaide Fringe Festival between 2003-6. At this point of the play Rasheda has been missing for two weeks, she finds Sheila sitting on the train station bench, she has returned to explain herself:
I was walking home that day
Two weeks ago today
Walking on my usual path
Thinking about how we’d be stars
Where we would go
Who we would know
How we would flow
And the way our souls would grow
I was thinking about how we needed that one song
That Anthem that would define
“Sista Philosophy in Rhyme”
I came up with it to describe what we are doing as we go down in time
I was thinking about our her-story our future and about being an MC
But then l started spiraling downward
And like a coward I slumped into a doubting fear
And my mind turned from clear to unclear
And I don’t know why I did
But l stopped walking
And l looked in the window of the newsagency
Inside the guy was watching TV
And all l could see were screens and magazines
And l don’t look like Aussie Soapie stars
Or the people on ads who drive 4 wheeled cars
Where are my role models in the media Sheila?
Where are the politicians, newsreaders?
Where are the brown leaders?
It’s gonna be harder than we dreamt it would be
We gotta break new ground
And we should and that’s good
But it hurts so bad
We’ll have to work so hard
And we don’t have any cash
And it drives me mad
Because l can’t understand how we made all these plans without thinking about reality
I mean how many female rappers be superstars in this country?
And how many women who don’t prescribe to the blonde blue-eyed model make it homegrown?
Whether their talent is their own or their philosophy is known
l feel sick
Because there are plenty who’d like to kick and lick any chick with strong ideals and height
deep into the shit
We aren’t boxed like a chocolate shiny
Our souls are sublime we create lyric timely
My daddy was a refugee
My mama was one too
I'm 100% Australian with a South African crew
Part of a family of politics
But who is Rasheda?
A brown hip hop star?
Who are our following?
Who are the readers?
The status quo?
l just don’t think so
Sometimes my country makes me cry
And l can’t see the sky
And l get lost in asking why
And l feel crushed
And have to remember to get up
Because my best friend doesn’t know what I’m doing or why I’ve turned so blue
So l do
l get up
l get up to warn her
Swell her with my history
My forgotten reality
Speak my fear and contemplation
‘Cos sometimes it feels like she hasn’t totally read the situation
I see a light in your eyes and the memory of possibility
But l need to let you know
Like a blow to the heart and the head and the soul
Breaking new ground could leave us cold
Sapped with the negativity of cultural -isms
And old rhythms and old and old and old
And what I’ve felt or been told
And l wanna break the mould
I wanna smash and crash and flash
And Lady MC
And SISTA SHE
And find the key
And write and write
And you and me
And find our sista- spirituality
But l fear it
And l should have stayed and made you understand
Before l faded afraid
At HotHouse Theatre, our show was a part of a comedy festival and there were lots of amazing comics like Denise Scott, The Kransky Sisters and Brian Nankervis on the bill. I remember Frank Woodley commenting that the wonderful thing about our show was that he’d simply never heard from young women like us before and it was amazing to be inside the minds and hearts of these characters. Sista She was fiercely feminist and totally suburban. Our song about being harassed by a toothless weirdo at the train station What are Yooze Girls Doin? became an anthem for a generation of young Aussie women; and was the highest requested track on Rosie’s Super Request (Triple J) in 2004. The general public ate us up; we were extraordinarily popular and started getting booked at arts and comedy festivals across the country. We were a complete anomaly on the Oz hip hop scene (where there is still a severe under-representation of women and people of colour), and our existence irked even the most politically aware hip hop heads, which tickles me to this day. I don’t think they quite understood the politics or the comedy.
Producing and creating opportunities for my art swiftly moved into opening up platforms for other artists of colour, for points of intersection and engaging new audiences. As a mentor and intercultural agent I have worked with brilliant First Nations writers, poets and performers, cross-disciplinary artists, musicians and theatre-makers. Much of my work has been one on one and long term with individuals but I’ve also developed projects inside arts organisations. I helped broker Playwriting Australia’s Outreach program at Fairfied High School and facilitated the first playwriting class with young people from non-English speaking backgrounds. In 2011, I was the artist in residence on the Juvenile Justice Program at Sydney Opera House, which was probably one of the most intense jobs I’ve ever been invited to fulfill. Using the arts to work on aspiration, emotional and spoken literacy with young people (80 percent black, from Polynesian and Indigenous backgrounds) who were in and out of the prison system was as challenging as it sounds. Staff confusing me for a participant and the participants themselves confused and shocked that there was a women who looked like them working at the Opera House was sometimes hilarious and other times deeply depressing. At one point, I was having lunch in the green room with the recording studio keys around my neck and I noticed that the only other people of colour there were cleaning and catering staff. The divide between elite performing arts spaces and marginalised communities is undeniable. I found a home in outreach and education programs because, unlike the mainstage, diversity is a core goal in practice.
"It’s easier to build strong children
I have a global vision for what Australian theatre could be. In my travels to international festivals, and on cultural tours throughout the US, UK and Africa, I have seen work that simply embodies and reflects the community around it. I’ve seen Shakespeare spoken with clarity and in the accent of the performer spitting it. I’ve witnessed devised works that deliver messages via beautifully inclusive casts. I’ve seen contemporary classics achieve complexity and universality without being tokenistic and I’ve seen political theatre that is equally sensual as it is intellectual. I’m often shocked by the lack of tenacity in the current Australian scene. Fear of failure (because we like what we know) creates a monoculture that only allows for the odd breakthrough now and then.
As an artist who's weaved in and out of our state theatre companies and the independent scene, I see a remarkable amount of laziness and tokenism regarding integration and supporting diversity. Shame and guilt still mark discussions surrounding the systemic racism at play. There are some basic processes working against the aim of cultural change. Recent articles discussing racism in the theatre point to some of the shortcomings of our thinking around diversity. Every business in Australia has to have an equal opportunity policy. In Victoria, there are special measures that ensure disadvantaged groups get extra support in applying for jobs. When I hear directors and general managers saying that the door is open and that they don’t discriminate, it concerns me greatly because they do not own their history and culture. Pitching for commissions, auditioning for roles and even organising a meeting with artistic directors takes an extraordinary amount of confidence. For many First Nations people, working class folks and migrant offspring, the social and cultural difficulties of entering supremely white spaces is an impossible barrier to surpass. Familiarity, feeling at ease, feeling wanted and welcome involves seeing and working with other people of colour; and not just in the marketing, accounts or graphics department. It’s about real investment. It doesn’t matter how nice folks are; it’s about visibility and cultural understanding.
"You cannot be what you cannot see."
Marion Wright Edelman
It’s taken me some time to work out how to bring the extraordinary talent I see throughout my practice centre stage. It’s a tiring and relentless battle advocating and agitating for space in the monoculture and systemic racism of Australian theatre, let alone producing a high standard of practice. There are places with resources that have made myself and many others feel welcome and at ease. The Australia Council and Arts Queensland's combined efforts to pilot the Theatre Diversity Associate role (taken up by Chris Kohn) has been instrumental in my success with grants and commissions over the past year. I believe the amount and quality of applications by CALD Artists from Queensland has risen dramatically. Having the extra support and notifications has pushed me to keep going. Commissioned by Queensland Theatre Company Twelve: a soul musical from the streets by Candy B and Busty Beatz after Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night brings the hip hop and soul underground centre stage. My sister and I have had the privilege of bringing 12 actor/rappers, actor/dancers, musicians and vocalists into QTC to develop our show. Workshopped and supported by the Australia Council’s In the Mix grant, this brand new piece of music theatre is a platform for the voices, bodies and musicality of my highly skilled culturally diverse community. The birth and support of this work (still in development) is already a triumph.
I have been gifted with a handful of stunning roles across my career in the theatre, just now playing Camae in Katori Hall’s The Mountaintop for Queensland Theatre Company, directed by Todd MacDonald, working on multiple parts in War Crimes by Angela Beltzien, directed by Leticia Caceres and developing The Lost Act by Melissa Reeves, directed by Susie Dee. What I have loved about these projects is sharing the stage with other actors from diverse backgrounds. If there’s one thing I despise more than watching all-white casts performing work by all-white writer/director teams, year in and year out, it’s seeing work with ONE person of colour on stage. The token. The character is either Anglicised - that is, pretending that the actor’s colour or ethnicity has no relevance to their lives or relationships, or they are Exotified - whereby the character's colour/culture/ethnicity is their ONLY currency.
Sometimes playwrights write more than one character but still work inside of this tokenised space, using broad brushstrokes on a group from the same cultural background; for example: Aboriginal people living on a river representing the 'spirit of the land' or the Greeks next door that don’t have any real potency in the delivery of the story. We see this basic thinking in casting too, such as casting all black actors as fairies in A Midsummer Night's Dream, or the Asian mistress in Joanna Murray Smith’s Honour. These careless binaries do nothing for the development of theatre or humanity.
I love Australian theatre. It’s been my home and my respite, my escape and my heart song since I was a child. I love it despite the bigotry and exclusivity and despite the tokenism. I love it for the cracks, for the Angus Cerini, Angela Belzien, Christos Tsiolkas and Patricia Cornelius, the Jack Charles, Nakkiah Lui, Sisters Grim and Jason De Santis element that grows against the wind. There’s much that’s been said about racism within Australian theatre. It’s not something that needs debate anymore; it’s simply a culture that needs to be shifted. Andrew Bovell’s address to the 2014 National Playwriting Festival shows that perhaps we still need men of his standing to speak on the topic for it to be addressed properly and with the urgency it demands. The discussion puts many people of colour in a strange situation. We don’t all agree on how to solve the lack of representation or what we want from the stage. There are many who just want to keep their heads down and be treated equally; others want protocol and for differences to be acknowledged. We want stories that show the specificity of our lives and we want to be cast in classics. We want to write and not be burdened with 'catch-up theatre' (having to document our parents' and our grandparents' experiences before writing about our own.) I mourn the lack of mentors and dramaturges with cultural understanding and the lived experiences necessary to help shape the diverse stories of Australia. I particularly mourn the oppressive environment that has shut out and deterred women of colour from this beautiful artform. Of course I do.
"Success is not a random act. It arises out of a predictable and powerful set of circumstances and opportunities."
Malcom Gladwell, Outliers
I am interested in a new space, a space where actors, writers and directors of colour can be our full sticky hot crazy amazing and complex selves. I’m interested in a space whereby our dualities and multiplicities can exist - sometimes in harmony and other times in chaos. The space will be full of colour. Real commitment. Real opportunities. Real faith in the artists. I yearn to pick up Australian scripts that hold my DNA. The power of hearing your very self, being sung to life by a playwright, lyricist or poet can be the key to survival in this cruel world. I look forward to the time when Australian theatre reflects the street I grew up on.
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A strong and passionate maker of political and raw performance, Candy Bowers is notorious for disturbing the comfortable. Whether in a classroom in regional Queensland or on stage at the Sydney Opera House her commitment to building social inclusion and social capacity for people of colour via theatre is great. After graduating from the NIDA acting course in 2001 Candy teamed up Sarah Ward to create the cult Hip Hop comedy act Sista She. Between touring music and arts festivals across the country, performing at Edinburgh Fringe and producing sketches for their own TV show on Channel V, they ran workshops in regional and remote area’s of Australia. Sista She won a swag of music, comedy and festival awards. In 2010 Candy was nominated for the Phillip Parsons Young Playwright Award and won the Best Performance Award at the Melbourne Fringe for her first solo show WHO’S THAT CHIK? In 2008 she picked up the British Council Realise Your Dream Award and was named on the Top 100 Creative Catalysts List (Vivid Festival).
Candy runs Black Honey Company with her sister Busty Beatz. The African Australian sisters have been touring Queensland with their kids show MC Platypus and Queen Koala’s Hip Hop Jamboree and rather adult show’s Australian Booty and Hot Brown Honey Burlesque. They are currently in creative development for a new Soul Musical based on Twelfth Night entitled Twelve and are collaborating on various brave works across the country. Candy is a 2014 recipient of The Glorias Fellowship (NIDA) and the Australia Council for the Arts: Cultural Leadership Skills Development grant. She will travel to the UK, US and South Africa to extend her craft as a comedian, writer and intercultural dramaturge.
For more in this series, visit AustralianPlays.org/state-of-play