At the 2008 Melbourne and 2009 Adelaide Fringe Festivals, LOCA’s Ladies of Colour Cabaret show sold out every night they performed.Merge an Adelaide street magazine rated LOCA second in their “top ten most controversial, unexpected and weird moments” at the Adelaide Fringe.They came second only to Cunts – an exhibition of 140 porcelain sculptures of women’s vulvas.The Ladies hold this notorious nomination with great pride.
The three LOCA ladies – Lia, Rai and Loretta – met at Monash University as activists in the feminist, queer and environmental movements.Disgruntled by the whiteness of their circles Lia says, “Race was seen as something people ignore.That was something I saw as a real blind-spot within Australian culture…particularly Australian left culture which is supposed to be aware of oppression in general.”Rai adds, “We were all sick of dealing with racism within our different communities and we wanted to have conversations in an autonomous safe dialogical space.”Loretta continues, “It wasn’t that we had the same experiences – but to be in a group where whatever you said was OK and you didn’t have to worry about, ‘well, that’s not my experience, maybe its just you.’”
Combining their politics with their talents, these three talented ladies debut with the LOCA Troika Cabaret in 2007.This two show gem was a hit, and they were spurred on to develop their ideas into the Ladies of Colour Cabaret which they took to the Melbourne and Adelaide Fringe Festivals.In the cabaret the three tackled issues that included ethnic stereotypes, whiteness in the women’s and activists’ movements, genderfucking, sexuality, essentialist identity constructions and a complex interrogation of oppression and privilege desperately missing in political conversations in Australia.
LOCA’s cabaret was an eclectic mix of performance genres that included multimedia, spoken word, burlesque, dancing, comedy and drag.Rai, “the dancing girl” of the troupe choreographed sensational belly dance, burlesque and drag performances.One patron described her dancing “like water”.Rai’s drag persona included “a very sexy Indian man” named Rakesh, the “only Bollywood drag king in town”.She is also Uncle Tom, a subversion of black and white minstrel shows.Performed to Tom Jones’ “Delilah”, Rai whitened her face and reddened her lips creating a macabre character, which she played with comic irony. “White people painted themselves black and assumed racist caricatures of black people.Australia had their own form of minstrel shows, based on horrific stereotypes of Indigenous people; it was part of Australian culture that no one wants to recognise”, says Rai angrily.Rai also performs one poetry piece; raging against the colonial pillage of her Indian cultural heritage, and claiming authority for her own dance.
Lia drew on her strength as a wordsmith to create some memorable poems – such as “Patriot”, ‘Child” and “Fucking White People”.She also performed in two drag and burlesque acts; a solo referencing Marilyn Monroe and a drag romance with Loretta.
“All my acts have been based on an image or idea, but never on a character so for a long time I didn’t think of this as theatre because I was always playing myself”, Lia reflects, then offers further insights into her Marilyn character.“I find that trajectory of starting of as a starlet, who is just an image, a character without the person underneath – it’s an image that everyone recognizes; that particular white dress from the “Seven Year Itch” and the blonde curly hair always posed, always this object of desire and object of fantasy. This image has so much inscribed on it.And to go from that to being just me naked and talking is such a transformation.”
The political messages that LOCA delivered also traverse into their burlesque acts.For Rai, the moment that LOCA decided to do a cabaret, she decided that she would strip.“Being an extraordinarily hairy woman is confronting for a lot of people, who maybe are after something a bit sexy and just find themselves confronted with lady gorilla.Lia had a very cool description of me wearing my lovely lace g-string,” Rai recounts, then pauses, as Lia jumps in “Its like a g-string over a beard”.The three laugh, and then Lia continues, “The Marilyn Monroe act that I do, it’s kind of burlesque, but in a way it’s really not because it’s not titillating at all.I read an article with a burlesque performer that said, ‘a burlesque performer never shows her nipples’ because the point is this seductive reveal whereas in my act, I take off my breasts… I have this two chicken fillet rubbery stick-on things …At the end of the act, I am completely naked.So it is not about this sexy seductive reveal, it actually is this confronting, exposed, vulnerable thing, [which] to me isn’t that sexy, but maybe is, in a really different way.”Loretta also agrees with her cohorts’ points.“For me I feel absolutely brilliant being able to get naked and have the audience find that amazing for them; that was a powerful experience for me.For us to have these acts where we are so explicit and so politically forceful with our bodies, it’s challenging not just titillating.” “Nudity and the sorts of things we talk about is this unearned intimacy which is really powerful.For someone to expose that much of themselves to you and make themselves that vulnerable to you is something people have to connect with,” says Lia.She chuckles, “At least most people do, some people don’t.”
Melbourne audiences loved LOCA and couldn’t get enough of them.They sold out theirfive Fringe Festival shows and had an extra sixth show – which sold out as well.In Adelaide, on the other hand, their reception was like waving a red flag to a crowd of fine-dining rednecks.Their genderfucking caused a lot of confusion amongst Najjars Café patrons, including the bar staff, who placed bets on their gender.In analysing their audience demographic, Lia reflects, “Anti-racist can be interpreted in many different ways, and because there isn’t a strong anti-racist presence in Australia, people tend to understand [anti-racism as] multiculturalism, cos that’s the dominant sort of ideology about race.So they were really not expecting us to call a white person a white person, and they really weren’t expecting the sort of political analysis we had.”While in all their Melbourne shows they had a smattering of audiences walk out, in their first Adelaide show two thirds of their audience walked out and the venue concerned, Najjars Café in North Adelaide received threats of property damage in protest of their show.Angry audience members complained to Channel Seven news and ABC radio.The next day they were hounded by media requests from Adelaide based current affairs programs and news.Najjars pulled out from their contract and cancelled their sold out season.Rather than falling prey to Adelaide news hounds, the Ladies refused to do any interviews, and instead maintained their integrity by issuing a statement. [The statement has been included at the end of the interview.]
Perhaps it is telling that in all their performances, when the audience was packed with people of colour, it was hard to even find a standing spot as people watched enraptured from beginning to end.Despite all the hardship that they’ve experienced, the Ladies have a special camaraderie with each other and they know it.Says Rai, “I feel like we are on the same page and even though we’ve had very different experiences, we still resonate with each other as women of colour, we have this understanding.”For Loretta, the “immense emotional, intellectual and creative growths” that she and the Ladies have experienced have spurred their creative developments.While other projects have kept them busy from each other, they are still dreaming up plans for LOCA.“We don’t have concrete plans for a new production or season but we are performing by invitation at various events”, Lia enthuses.
LOCA will be performing at the launch of Peril on Thurs 3rd December at the Sidney Myer Asia Centre.
STATEMENT FROM THE LADIES OF COLOUR AGENCY
LOCA on defacing the flag
We understand that the final act of our theatrical production, the Ladies of Colour Cabaret, has caused offence. The act involves one performer wearing the Australian flag and cutting it off her body.
To begin with, we do not feel represented by the Australian flag. The presence of the Union Jack in a position of prominence serves to deny Indigenous history, as if Australia were innocently “discovered” rather than violently colonised. It also implies the subordination of multiple Australian identities to a single, dominant Anglo-Australian model.
More importantly, the Australian flag has become a symbol of racist violence for us, and we believe for many people of colour living in this country. Since the Cronulla riots especially, the image of the Australian flag has been associated with the white pride movement and “rahowa” (racist holy war). It appears on t-shirts accompanied by slogans such as “fuck off we’re full” or “love it or fuck off”. We feel that the Australian flag has been used by white nationalists to suppress full participation in Australian society by people of colour.
We do not accept that our relationship with the country we call home should be only uncritical gratitude. We believe in active, engaged citizenship and political participation. We have a right to be critical of the flag of our country and its uses in racial violence such as the Cronulla riots. As artists and as citizens, we stand by our act, which we believe calls into question a problematic nationalism and its primary symbol.