Where identity and theatre collide

By Simon Farley in conversation with Jean Tong | 01 May 18
jean tong

Jean Tong’s play Terrorism (first staged in 2015 and then remounted in 2016) remains one of the finest examples of contemporary theatrical writing in Australia. Its fragmented chorus of competing voices cuts a swathe across Australian society, harvesting a broad range of perspectives on terrorists, terrorism and the ordinary people who get caught up in these labels, in one way or another.

Jean’s latest project, Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit, has been a roaring success: after two sold-out runs at The University of Melbourne and at iconic Melbourne cabaret venue the Butterfly Club, earning a four-star review from The Age, and this year it was mounted for a third time at the prestigious Malthouse Theatre for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival. It was hailed by many queer and POC audience members for its depiction of people and experiences that are typically swept aside by mainstream theatre and media, or else tokenistically paraded by straight/white creators before being unceremoniously killed off.

As a writer, director, dramaturg and all-round theatrical powerhouse, Jean’s career is in an ascent, which is exhilarating to behold. Right Now’s Simon Farley caught up with her to discuss the intersections and interstices between theatre and identity.

Simon Farley (SF): How would you describe your cultural background and does that have any influence on your theatre practice?

Jean Tong (JT): So I was born and raised in Malaysia. I lived there for sixteen years and then just before I turned sixteen I moved to Australia for year 10 and I’ve been here since then. The most obvious influence it has is my perception of what democracy and politics means, ‘cause it is a mess in Malaysia, an absolute sham.

SF: So, how does that work its way into the theatre stuff?

JT: Well you could call [my work] wry outrage because it’s partly the apathy, partly that sense of hopelessness that it’s gonna change, ‘cause people aren’t gonna revolt, they’re not gonna take major action, other than voting – but then there’s gerrymandering, so what’s your vote gonna do?

It’s that sense of like, everything you do that is a legal [action] you could take as a citizen in a democracy, your political actions, they all have no effect; it’s futile, you are actually a powerless person and the only way you can have power is by accumulating a lot of money, getting authority, and then making it better for who you can around you.

Which just creates that thing again and again of everyone just trying to get more and more power whether they want to use it for good or bad or whatever. I think a lot of Malaysians have a strong sense of absurdity, of, “This is absolutely fucking ridiculous.” The same party has been in power since the country came into being… sixty years ago… They’ve come close to losing elections, but I don’t know. Our opposition leader Anwar Ibrahim got prosecuted for sodomy. He’s been in and out of jail, they’ve appealed, overturned the appeal, reinstated the conviction, et cetera, et cetera, and I think he’s still in jail now… We can complain about Australia – and I do often – but it’s generally still reasonable; I feel like Malaysia… it’s a bit Trump-y, the way people talk about politics, but it’s been going on for a long time. Just using language that doesn’t say anything and making openly ridiculous statements about how the world works… and you just get away with it.

I think people are waking up to it but it’s been the norm for politicians to lie for so long that I think the massive amounts of money that went missing, it feels like it’s just one more thing. The public kind of went, “Well, this is terrible, but it’s just the same thing that’s been happening for… fifty years”.

So I think that’s slipped into my practice a bit… [My tone] is often bleak, usually angry – sometimes the anger is better masked by song and dance. It makes me really interested in wordplay… and I think that’s partly to do with the way people use language in Malaysia – loosely and very carelessly.

SF: Why do you think diverse representation is important?

JT: At its core, diverse representation is just about opening up the imagination to, one, give those diverse people the opportunity to see themselves in multiple ways and… what we are able to see ourselves being and becoming, because it’s fucked otherwise, the power structure never shifts, the way we treat each other becomes increasingly limited.

The second one is, personally, I’m just bored of seeing people who aren’t me.

And third, the lack of diverse representation is incredibly alienating. For example, if you’re a young queer trans person of colour, and you know at some level that that’s what you are but you don’t know how to name it, you’ve never seen it around you.

Every person you see on screen is a cis, white, late-twenties, conventionally attractive person and that’s what you’re meant to aspire to but every fibre of your being says that’s not what you’re ever gonna reach, or want to reach, and you don’t know what else you can do, I think the way that affects your psyche – not to get too psychoanalytic about it – it’s incredibly damaging.

The repercussions of that is that you can’t imagine your place in the world. And that’s why we have higher suicide rates. That’s why we have just the worst statistics for people who are Aboriginal. Young Aboriginal people have [extremely high] statistics for suicide ‘cause they have nowhere to fucking see themselves in this country ‘cause this country’s not making space for them to see themselves.

So, diverse representation is not just like this media lefty thing – it’s not just an ideal – it’s actually a responsibility, because we’ve been creating mass media for long enough now that we can’t deny what it means to have it be inclusive.

SF: How can theatre change people’s perceptions – of the world, of identity, of whatever?

JT: It can open up different perspectives. This is a very mainstream example but The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time. [For] people diagnosed with Asperger’s, it’s a very important mainstream point of narrative, to be able to see a character on stage who’s very clear about being on the autism spectrum and allowing people to see that as a norm, as a popular character people [who] people like and who’s just living their fucking life. It opens up a lot of neurotypical audiences’ perceptions about autism is and what it means to live with it.

So it can be something that is there to bring down stereotypes and it often is a very good way of doing that because the character is in front of you – it feels so much closer I think, so it can be an intense way of opening up stuff like that.

I think because theatre feels so niche, it can be a space where a lot of niche things can get a literal platform and also a much bigger reach if it hits something as mainstream as Curious Incident or Hamilton… These shows can make something that’s incredibly entertaining and also open up space for difference… At the best end of mainstream entertainment theatre, that’s what it can do – give you a window into someone’s life and let you hold that with you forever.

Can political theatre change people’s minds? …It’s hard to tell… Only if they’re willing to be changed… I think what theatre does quite well is ask questions. An audience coming in, whether or not they agree with you, they’re prepared to be with you and they’re prepared to engage with you…

And so sometimes you get conservative older people coming to shows about refugee rights and they come out and they’re like “Yeah I’ve never really thought about that, I’m gonna think about that,” and they do.

They go back to their friends and they bring it up at dinner and they’re like, “I went to this thing and this is what they said,” and next thing they’re [at protests]… Maybe it’s buying into the structure but I do really wanna know what old conservative white people think about my work… ‘cause the challenge they then bring to what I’m saying is better for my work ‘cause I have to defend myself… Or you could just be super cynical and be like, “Nothing changes anything, we’re all fucked, so why not make some good theatre in the meantime.”

Jean’s upcoming play, Hungry Ghosts, will be performed at the Melbourne Theatre Company, May 3-19.