We spoke with Jean Tong in the lead up to her latest production, Romeo is Not the Only Fruit, which you can catch at The Butterfly Club from the 14th-16th of November as a part of the Poppy Seed Theatre Festival.
Could you talk a little about DisColourNation, and how Romeo is Not the Only Fruit evolved out of that collective?
Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit was initially developed through DisColourNation, a theatre collective of people of colour that focuses on amplifying diverse voices and experiences. The first show the collective created was The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, which interrogated the absence of people of colour onstage. I included that show in Tastings 2016, a showcase of nine original works, and Unbearable Whiteness was challenging, brave, and resisted by all the people who needed to be pushed.
I was drawn to working on Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit because I wanted to see what story would emerge if we moved away from centralising Whiteness. By centring ourselves and the stories we were interested in, we created a musical that foregrounds our queerness against a backdrop of social commentary, some of which includes race.
In the original development, we used existing songs with lyrics, some of which were parody. The strength of that season led me to pitch the show as a second development of a new musical with original music and a better script to Poppy Seed Theatre Festival 2017… about two weeks after our first development showing. They said yes, which meant we then had to go away and actually live up to our claim that we would write eight new songs and fix the book within eight weeks!
So we did. And now here we are with an electro-pop lesbian reverse-racist slapstick musical created by a cast and crew that’s 85% people of colour, so I guess the Asians really are taking over.
Romeo is Not the Only Fruit interrogates the historical treatment of queer women of colour in theatre, in film, and in the literary cannon. In doing so, it de-centres Whiteness and heteronormativity completely (right on). Tell me what is was like creating a queer WoC love story.
Personally, it’s been such a joy to be able to make something that makes even my deeply cynical little heart sing. It’s the first show I’ve created that centres a queer romance and I catch myself marvelling at just how rare that is during rehearsals; there’s something about having a hand in bringing that to the fore that feels like I’m contributing at least one good thing for 2017. It gives me a bit of hope to be able to offer something like Romeo to the current sociopolitical landscape.
Artistically, the nerd in me just relishes the opportunity to toy with the Western literary canon, which has historically (some might also, accurately, say contemporaneously) excluded people of colour, queer people, and women, just to start with some broad categories. Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit is an incursion into that canon, and probes the Bury Your Gays trope, particularly with respect to queer women of colour. We’re taking the stage back with a Dead Lesbian Chorus full of attitude, edgy jokes, pop hits, and interracial romancing. Through our satirical gender-swapped, heterosexuality-confounding, race-flipped lens, we get to make very overt references to this longstanding canon, make it relevant to ourselves, and stake our own claim on it.
The production is pumped full of, I quote, ‘ORIGINAL ELECTRO POP BANGERS’, and features a Dead Lesbian Chorus (amazing?!). Could you tell me a bit about the process of writing the musical aspect of the musical? In critiquing the historical cannon, did the satirical pop element emerge naturally?
The pop element came about quite organically as a pretty bald-faced commitment to creating content that was incredibly niche but used the most mainstream possible form to reach as many people as possible. It’s a bit of a reversal of the Western literary canon, which I find tends to be made up of content that we’re expected to acknowledge as universal, even though they’re of course niche experience as well – it’s just that they portray white-cis-upper-class-able-bodied experiences as the default.
Personally, I also wanted to move away from ‘serious’, opaque/academic critiques of the canon, and rely on audiences to instinctively recognise what the canon meant in relation to the stories they were consuming, and feel that tension between canon and contemporary as they’re laughing.
Romeo transcends boundaries in more ways than one. The show straddles genres, and becomes something wholly original, exciting, and necessary by creating something with an almost mash-up element. Tell me about how the telling of queer stories influenced this element of the show.
This is where I get a bit Real. As a young queer growing up in Malaysia, I had very limited access to queer-centric, much less queer-positive media. But I did have the Internet, which means a lot of things, but for the purposes of this question, primarily meant fan-fiction. Fan-fic gets a bad reputation, but within queer communities, it’s often a means of piecing together lots of little bits of (heterosexual) media until you have enough bits to make something queer that actually feels like something out of your life. I feel like when you actively recognise your absence from the media you’re consuming, you instinctively latch onto all the pieces that feel right, and you make yourself out of that collage. Otherwise, you’re left with this sense of exclusion that you can’t quite place when you’re young and don’t have the language yet, and that can be incredibly difficult.
Which is to say that queer people of colour become very good at figuring out how to piece together stories that approximate our actual lived experiences from all of the disparate pieces we can hack out of the monolith of boring, white bread cis-het media we’re constantly being shovelled. Spending the bulk of my formative years doing this to figure out who I was and what I was interested in meant that this queer musical with all its inter-textual references and ambitions of queering and colouring up the canon inevitably embraced sitting outside-of and in-between clearly defined categories, because that’s really the only thing I know how to do.