Writing Under the Influence: Race

By Jean Tong

Being a POC playwright is automatically getting defensive when you receive an email out of the blue asking you to write about The Experience of Being a POC Playwright, specifically. 

I considered trying to write a thoughtful, emotional piece about how by writing this piece, I would be replicating the thing I fear, which is the ghettoisation of ‘diverse’ work by major theatre companies – where the ‘diverse’ projects get advertised to ‘diverse’ audiences who are craving representation of other ‘diverse’ people. 

I considered reflecting on how internalising that fear in exchange for commercial reward really skews your personal artistic interests by making you feel like you have to be the ‘right’ kind of ‘diverse’ with an assumed vision and perspective. 

I considered reflecting on the absurdity of internalising a fear that has arisen regardless of whether anyone has actually expressed anything remotely like that. 

I worry I am pandering, but I don’t know who I am pandering to anymore, whether the ghosts of a supremacist system are real or personal.

As it turns out, in trying to write this piece, I realised that primarily, my Experience of Being a POC Playwright primarily revolves around being worried about things. So, here’s a short list of my many personal anxieties as An Official POC Playwright who is also Queer but Really Likes Driving Through Country Towns, if anyone is looking to commission:

  • I worry about exploiting my culture for profit
  • I worry about sidelining my culture out of fear of exploiting it, and instead ending up rewriting the dominant narrative over and over again, thereby maintaining its dominance
  • I worry about exploiting my personal narrative for profit
  • I worry about not having anything to write about because the 24 years of my dustbin life doesn’t give me much personal experience to draw from 
  • I worry about trying to write about concepts when personal experience sells more tickets
  • I worry I sold out but did so without questioning where that urge came from. I worry it came from me. I worry I am pandering, but I don’t know who I am pandering to anymore, whether the ghosts of a supremacist system are real or personal.
  • I worry about the opportunities that are given to POC playwrights.
  • I worry about whether/when those opportunities to be a ‘successful’ playwright come with strings.
  • I worry about being a playwright in Australia at the moment. 

In June this year, Playwriting Australia (PWA) abruptly announced the redundancies of its remaining staff members, essentially dissolving the company and putting it under review. I worry about what this means for playwrights looking for support in an already precarious career. 

In the midst of justifying/contextualising the apparent dissolution of the company, the board states:

“On our major stages Australian plays now make up the majority, gender parity has been achieved and companies are committed to maintaining it, First Nations storytelling has become central to our theatre, and there is a greater diversity of voices being produced. The microphone is being passed around.”

I worry about a major national company implying that doing the barest minimum now counts as success. 

I worry about equity being used as markers for ‘growth’. 

I worry about what is not included in the PWA Board statement – that artists with disability earn 42 per cent  less on average compared with artists without disability; that ‘fewer than 10 per cent of Australia’s artistic directors come from culturally diverse backgrounds’; that two thirds of the arts organisations in Australia were about to have their applications for long-term funding rejected, further weakening an arts ecology that emerging artists including playwrights rely on in order to ever reach the point of being on a stage to get counted as a marker for success.

I worry about the kinds of thinking those broadly self-congratulatory statements, without a hint of irony or critique, breed. I worry it encourages the notion that there’s been ‘enough’ diverse work to balance out centuries of supremacy and monolithic art. I worry about pieces that say things like: 

“Some of the big companies continue to show that they believe some kind of cachet exists in lassoing a group of inexperienced playwrights into some kind of scheme. But that’s less about giving voice to playwrights than it is about prioritising those who have yet to develop voice. Important, but not great for great dramas.”

What we’re witnessing is mutiny against what “craft” means.

Being a POC playwright is fielding the fear that sets in before your work even reaches an audience that someone out there already assumes that some playwrights are “bolstered out of an industrial neurosis for novelty or identity”. 

Being a ‘diverse’ playwright is understanding at a molecular level that these vague statements are code about “niche” work lacking craft, code for “you will never be greatbecause your diversity is a temporary fad”, code for “you’re only here because you sold your story, not because you can write”. 

I worry that trying to defend against such vaguely articulated, mostly camouflaged racism gives it more voice. I worry that not defending against it normalises that idea, lets it seep into the casual reader, makes people believe that major companies are out there throwing tens of thousands of dollars away at random playwrights that they believe lack craft but whose “identity” or “novelty” will somehow pay the bills. 

Being ‘diverse’ makes me hyper-aware of the word “craft” because I worry it refers to “dominant ways of speaking and exchanging ideas that are unfamiliar to white gatekeepers and therefore not of Good Quality” rather than “a series of aesthetic judgments based on personal taste collectively reified by a big enough group of tastemakers”.

Some might say that claim means there’s no possible way of evaluating art without also evaluating its social context, political hierarchies, models of critique, funding models and more. 

Some might say – yes, that’s correct. 

 “Yes, this production sports excellent singing, glam costumes, elaborate period choreography and lustrous leads. Yet it also revisits the ghosts of musical theatre past in a way that haunts the joy. Prior’s racist lampoon is uncomfortable to watch […] Do we have a right to ignore such things, and enjoy the musical anyway?”
– The Age on the recent production of Thorough Modern Millie by The Production Company at the Arts Centre Melbourne

What we’re witnessing is mutiny against what “craft” means. What we’re witnessing is the blossoming idea that actually, as part of a critical analysis of craft, we are also taking into account the ability to write the fullness of humanity without dehumanising others. This, at least, is something I’m not worried about.

am worried that I have suggested POC playwrights spend a lot of time worrying instead of writing plays. I worry I am alone in worrying. I worry that I am not, which means there’s a lot of worry going around. I worry I’ve overused the word worry.

But most of all, I worry that the burden of worrying about this stuff still falls on us, rather than the institutions, structures and leaders we worry so much about. 

Jean Tong is a writer, dramaturg and director, and currently the Development Assistant at Goalpost Pictures. Her plays include Hungry Ghosts, which premiered at Melbourne Theatre Company in 2018, and the musical Romeo is Not the Only Fruit, which premiered in 2017 and was remounted at Malthouse Theatre for the Melbourne International Comedy Festival and Brisbane Festival in 2018. In 2019, Jean directs the premiere of new Australian work Oh No! Satan Stole my Pineal Gland! by Kirby Medway. Jean is also in development for Flat Earthers: The Musical, which was shortlisted for ATYP’s Rebel Wilson Scholarship, and accepted into Homegrown Australia’s Grassroots Initiative. 

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