Somewhere in the naughties, I found myself in a nightclub in the Philippines with an Irish friend who would later go on to become a diplomat for the European Union.
We shared a few drinks, a few dances and at one point in the long, neon-soaked night, we watched a floor-show somewhere between talent quest, hip-hop battle and karaoke extravaganza. The performers may or may not have been members of the audience or paid entertainers, but either way, they gave Celine Dion a run for her money with their no-irony, belt-it-til-you-make-it delivery style.
At the end of the show, my friend leaned over and said, “watching Filipinos is like watching Asians pretending to be white people pretending to be black people”.
I took a beat.
In his defence, I don’t think he was trying to be racist, or to enact a kind of comparative violence. In some ways, I think he was searching for a way to comprehend the layers of cultural interplay and the contested politics of memory that enables sweet spaghetti with hot dogs to consistently outsell MacDonald’s in the Philippines. The Latinos of Asia aren’t easy to define.
Then again, he might have just been a bit of a wanker.
Credit and thanks to the following reviewers who will save me from having to recount the company’s early controversy with Kids Killing Kids; the delightfully convoluted meta-plot of Are you ready to take the law into your own hands?; and the determinedly “non-political” showiness of the most political show I’ve seen in Australian theatre in a long time. Check out the following for a sample:
- Judith Greenaway, Arts Hub
- Myron My, My Melbourne Arts
- Nabilah Said, Arts Equator
- Robert Reid, Witness Performance.
Across these four reviews, you should be able to get a fairly comprehensive description of the pop-drenched, P-drama rollicking knowingness and biting satire that was Are you ready to take the law into your own hands.
All I can offer to complement these reviews is a few reasons why I’m still talking about this work a week and then some later, and why I’ll probably be talking about it for a long time to come.
Filipinos in Australia portraying a complex, knowing narrative of their own cultural stereotypes
Asian Australian actors are doing better in recent times, with a variety of diversity initiatives translating into increased (and sometimes hyper-) visibility of non-white/non-Anglo actors and narratives. But still, there can be a sense that Asian Australian actors/creatives would still do better overseas (here’s looking at you Chris Pang, Charlotte Nicdao and others), and Australian audiences mostly prefer narratives of nostalgia and longing over controversy and critique. It is easy to laugh good humouredly at mild clash-of-culture social gaffes salved by the undercurrent of “why can’t we all just get along?” or the banality of empathy.
What Sipat Lawin offers, instead is both clapback and loving homage, the kind of tongue-in-cheek bitchiness that can only come when you are using the reductive stereotypes of the student activist, the vapid vlogger, the incompetent/patriotic police, sexy girls surrounded by smoke, beauty queens, pop stars, evil politicians and swarthy bad guys, and you’re in charge of the meta-meta view dizzyingly embodied in the camera in frame in frame shots projected on the massive surround screens. Its fan-dance meets fan-culture and fuck you and I like it.
This is unapologetically culturally-specific work that wastes no time thanking the majority white audience for allowing it merely be Filipino in public. Tagalog is deployed precisely and effectively as an invitation in and a barrier to comprehension for the predominantly non-Filipino audience. The confected visual playfulness is just the right amount of sugar to make that medicine go down.
Rampant queered female and trans visibility
When I get smarter and have more time, I’ll have something more coherent to say about the affective dramaturgy of the female and queered bodies taking space in Are you ready (sorry – just gotta trim this show name). All I can offer the meantime is this quote:
… [B]ecause we can’t know in advance, but only retrospectively, if even then, what is queer and what is not, we gather and combine eclectically, dragging a bunch of cultural debris around us and stacking it in idiosyncratic piles ‘not necessarily like any pre-existing whole,’ though composed of what pre-exists. For queer scholars and activists, this cultural debris includes our incomplete, partial, or otherwise failed transformations of the social field. (2010: xiii)
What is articulated in the representations of “femaleness” in Are you ready is piles upon idiosyncratic piles of cultural debris that shatter simple readings of Filipino femininity. If you could fairly say 20th Century Australia was aggressively heteronormative (and full of the segregations of race and class), then contemporary Anglo culture could still do with the representative shakeup that comes from a sustained hour or so of feminist, queered, slippery, racialised bodies like those in Are you ready. We don’t get enough of it. Think of it like increasing the dietary fibre for your prejudicial bowels. And enjoying yourself at the same time.
Implicated depictions of Australian cultural diplomacy
Fittingly for Asia TOPA, Are you ready is framed within the running gag of directorial/DFAT commentary on the work, in the painfully smug tone emblematic of cultural diplomacy. As Australia reels in confusion from its economic dependence on China in the wake of COVID-19, we collectively grapple with the awkward instrumentalism of slithering into the underbelly of Asia with our own unique brand of daggy cosmopolitanism. If a barong tagalog could flip you the bird, DFAT, the one worn by writer, David Finnigan, would have done so somewhere about 50 mins into Are you ready.
With playful good humour, Sipat Lawin, highlights the misleading neutrality with which Australia regards itself; as a general public, Australians are often surprised to learn how they are perceived internationally. Here, the critique is not so much that Australia is racist (the easy shot, of course), but that we are geopolitically complicit. This subtler and more complicated proposition asks a country so fond of saying “lest we forget” to know what it was trying to remember in the first place. This show felt loose and raucous in places, but like the best satire and comedy, this masked a rigour and discipline to parsing the syntactical complexity of double languages and double speak.
Freeman, E. (2010) Time Binds: Queer Temporalities, Queer Histories. Durham, NC and London: Duke University Press
Director: JK Anicoche
Choreographer: Jared Luna
Lights and Tech Direction: Roman Cruz Jr
Video Artist: Joyce Garcia
Music: J Laspuńa
Writer: David Finnigan
Stage Manager: Sigmund Pecho
Performers: Adrienne Vergara, Blanche Buhia, Brandon Relucio, Bunny Cadag, Ji-ann Lachica and Claudia Enriquez
Local dance collaborators: Efren Pamilacan and KIKI House of Dévine
Dancers: Mother Kiki Dévine with daughters; Nicole Dévine, Jada Dévine, Sheena Dévine, Pepito Dévine, Crystal Dévine, July Dévine, Sharnelle Dévine