It only takes a few minutes of channel changing on Sydney’s commercial television networks to see how whitewashed our media and entertainment scene is. From news and current affairs, to the soaps and the reality programs; our screens are dominated by blonde women, square-jawed bronzed teens and white middle aged men.
New ABC managing director Michelle Guthrie, in her very first statement, has called for more “cultural diversity” across the public broadcaster when she commenced the role on Monday (May 2).
This year we finally saw people with visibly non-white heritage in the running for Australian television’s biggest popularity contest. But the petty uproar in response to the Gold Logie nominations of SBS icon Lee Lin Chin and The Project’s resident truth speaker Waleed Aly is a sad demonstration of our entertainment scene’s inherent prejudice.
For many years this white washing of our entertainment industry has been the accepted norm. But it is perhaps not unexpected that Sydney’s burgeoning theatre scene is the first to start demonstrating genuine diversity, hopefully as a forerunner to greater change to come in mass media.
We spoke to a few of the theatre scenes’ game changers to see how they are shaking things up and bringing issues of colour and diversity from stage left to front and center.
Elijah Williams, our cover star, is a Sydney actor taking on his first professional role this month at the Kings Cross Theatre. Elijah plays Gabriel Chibamu in Black Jesus, a play that investigates the abuses committed by Zimbabwe’s Mugabe government after its fall in 2015. Gabriel is put on trial as one of the most infamous perpetrators of the regime’s atrocities, a process that questions the concepts of right and wrong, guilt and innocence and truth and justice.
Elijah first came to Australia from West Africa with his mother and brother. He was enrolled as a boarder in a prestigious private school, where for the first few days he said “it was really weird, and it was awkward. I felt like a fish out of water, like an outcast”. He has also found it hard to break out of typecasting in roles for stage and screen, adding: “It hasn’t been an easy journey being an African who wants to play other roles, but is unable due to other factors.”
Elijah describes being able to play a character that he can relate to on a personal and cultural level as an amazing experience. Importantly, the play is relatable on a more universal level. “[Black Jesus] is not subject to only Africans viewing it and coming to see it. The aim is to get the outside world to come and see and understand… where we are going as people,” he explained.
As an actor, producer and champion of theatrical diversity, Bali Padda is another figure bringing migrant experiences to the stage. He is the proud producer of Lighten Up, playing at the Griffin Theatre Company. Written by and starring Nicholas Brown, the play focuses on an Anglo-Indian actor trying to get his break in the soap ‘Bondi Parade’ despite his obvious differences to the rest of the cast.
Bali has had his fair share of being restricted to certain roles in his time as an actor. “I found myself playing terrorists, cleaners, [or] an Indian student,” he said. He struggled to find a role that represented the complexities of his experience, constantly questioning why he had to always play a narrow perception of his culture instead.
“There’s a problem that there’s no real representation of how multicultural Australia is in any of our products, whether it is stage, TV or film… so I said [to myself] ‘this is a problem and I am going to be the one that makes a difference’.”
Since then, Bali has been putting his money where his mouth is by creating and championing more diverse material that better represents migrant communities. He is often required to convince theatre companies that they are not taking a risk with these kinds of productions, reminding them that diverse casting has been shown to bring in “higher revenues, more eyeballs and better advertising”.
Creating more diverse material is one thing, but getting it on the stage is an entirely different story. Mongrel Mouth Productions is a company not only dedicated to producing original, site-specific theatre in unusual locations, but they are also dedicated to working with people from all cultural backgrounds. Artistic producer and director Duncan Maurice is trying to overcome the fact that “the main stages are looking at not only white actors and white artists but also white stories”.
Duncan sees the challenge for the Sydney theatre scene as not only having a more diverse cast, but also having people of different backgrounds in the room making the decisions. “It’s not only having these voices in the room, but that they also come with an opinion and the right to have their perspective known and shared,” he said.
Duncan explained that creating diversity on stage will also encourage diversity in theatre audiences, because “we go to see theatre to see our stories being told, and if your story is not being told, then why would you go?”
Diversity in theatre is a thought-provoking and commercially viable alternative to the white experience we so often see play out on our city’s main stages. It is able to represent beliefs and values central to us as humans that are indifferent to our skin colour. And, at the end of the day, we all have a lot more in common than that which divides us.
Apr 29–May 21, Wed-Sat 8pm, Sun 5pm. Kings Cross Theatre. Level 2 Kings Cross Hotel, 244-248 William Street, Kings Cross. $27-$32. Tickets & info: kingsxtheatre.com
Nov 30–Dec17. Griffin Theatre Company. SBW Stables Theatre, 19 Nimrod Street, Kings Cross. $30-$38. Tickets & info: griffintheatre.com.au/whats-on/lighten-up/
For info on the company’s previous productions and to stay up to date with future shows go to: mongrelmouth.com