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interview with jean tong

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Jean Tong is an emerging Melbourne playwright, who recently wrote and directed Romeo Is Not the Only Fruit, now playing at the Butterfly Club. The play aims to address the startling lack of inclusive media representation through dissecting queer and straight rom-com tropes.

Lip had the pleasure of interviewing Tong about her recent work and what more needs to be done to address inclusivity in media and the arts.

Was there a specific event that inspired you to create this show? 

There wasn’t a specific event as such. It was more that I had just become fatigued by the lack of stories created by or about queer people and people of colour on Australian stages.

Earlier this year, the first iteration of Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit was developed through theatre collective DisColourNation. This is a group of artists of colour who wanted to take direct action against the pervasive whiteness of theatre in Australia.

I was moved to create Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit because I was eager to explore a story that decentred whiteness, foregrounded queerness, and had a banging soundtrack to boot.

I took the opportunity to pitch a new version of the show to Poppy Seed Theatre Festival because I thought the show could grow into a new version, with an original score, which could be seen by a wider audience. They included us in the festival, and since then my amazing team has put together a fabulous reverse –racist, lesbian pop musical that’s ridiculous but very real. Through this, we address ssues that continue to affect marginalised peoples while making you laugh out loud and tap your feet.

What was it like working with the cast, Sasha, Nisha, Margot, Pallavi and Louisa? 

They’ve been such a pleasure to work with. Because of the venue, restricted rehearsal period, and script, I’ve been quite prescriptive with what I’m asking for in the tone and performance.

They’ve been absolute stars who’ve run with that and just quietly made all of my offers better while making me think it was my idea. But we know it’s really all them.

The cast are also all incredibly funny people, and I’m reduced to a cackling puddle on the floor at least once per rehearsal.

What is your favourite part of the show?

The visual height gags. It’s such a trope in basically all romantic shipping (queer or otherwise), and I love pushing repeat gags in different ways, and also being able to fit those gags directly into The Butterfly Club’s upstairs stage. I keep feeling like I haven’t fully exploited JULIET and DARCY’s heights, which are 5’3” and 6’4” respectively. It’s just a Good Time.

Is it everything you imagined it would be, or was there more you wanted to include? 

Directorially, I’m happy with how the show has come together. We’ve really successfully put together a lot of complicated elements and it’s a bit of a relief that it actually managed to just happen.

The writer in me does feel the option of minor inconsequential tweaks calling to me, which my production team and cast are rightly aghast about, so this version of the show is set.

But the possibility of this 75-minute piece becoming a looser, major 3-hour-15-minute interval musical is at the back of my mind. There’s space in the story for more characters, a bigger chorus, more backstory for our main characters, and more gags. So. Many. More. Gags. Know any producers?

Is there something you can share about the show that might entice people to come see it? 

As cast member Margot Tanjutco put it, where else are you going to get to see “a musical where gay Lizzie Bennet died & gay Darcy’s off w gay Juliet Capulet in Asian Verona?”

There is a choreographed dance to a song called RACIST G-MA SONG, so.

What kind of impact do you think a show like this is going to have on society’s view of romance, queer people and people of colour? 

Hopefully this show serves as a challenge and opportunity for queer people and people of colour to be able to play roles that are rarely afforded to them: the lead roles, the romantic love-interest roles, the stars of their own shows. The roles through which stereotypes are torn apart joyfully rather than replayed for laughs, or even, god forbid, roles that aren’t about stereotypes at all.

And within the current climate, with the marriage equality survey happening, it’s absolutely important for queer people, particularly queer women-of-colour, to be able to see themselves being loved onstage, whether that’s platonically or romantically. I’m hoping this show can offer a modicum of comfort to our community.

Why do you think society is so reluctant to accept inclusive representation in media? 

The bulk of society has always been resistant to change. That’s how dominant group identities have historically functioned. There’s an insider and an outsider, and the dominant group stays dominant by reducing the other politically, economically, socially… Media representation plays a huge role in this. Representation intrinsically shapes the way we move through the world because it’s about how we think about ourselves, how our choices are influenced.

Inclusive representation directly combats this. Inclusive representation means our difference gets to be seen, acknowledged, and actually recognised as legitimate and real. Inclusive representation makes space for a humanity that isn’t exclusive and limited to one particular type of aesthetic: conventionally attractive, straight, white, heterosexual, cis, able-bodied, neuro-typical. Inclusive representation directly combats the false assumption that these categories are the default and the ultimate.

Inclusive representation means society needs to ask who isn’t at the table and it’s a deeply uncomfortable discussion because we have to recognise and contend with our culpability. We include ourselves in this culpability because yes, we can definitely do better, too.

Why is this kind of representation important to you? 

The real question is: why isn’t this kind of representation important to everyone? If we’re not trying to make things better, then what are we doing?

What do you see for the future of inclusivity in art?

I think we are finally starting to get somewhere – “diversity” and “inclusion” are hot topics and buzzwords right now, but social understanding and expectation around inclusivity is not just a fad. The stakes have changed. In every industry, not just art, people are speaking up and becoming more aware of practices and institutions that aren’t inclusive. The gatekeepers of media and pop culture – be it theatre, film, visual art or music – are now being criticised for their lack of diversity on multiple fronts.

There is so much art out there being on a local and global level that is targeted at their own community and their allies, and wider audiences are starting to acknowledge how good that good shit is. The more this art gets made, the more it moves from being niche, to being recognised as just another aspect of identity and life.

Quotas, programs and opportunities for marginalised artists are becoming increasingly common which is heartening to see, but the next step is for the institutions themselves to be more reflective of our society – we need inclusivity among the decision-makers and leaders of the arts. We need allies and champions of diversity to challenge existing structures and be willing to show that they want to do more than have us tick boxes.

And how do you think this will impact minorities?

The value of seeing yourself being represented in media cannot be underestimated, as anyone who has ever felt like they’re on the outside of something looking in can attest to.

The more marginalised groups are given opportunities, encouragement, creative freedom, financial support, and visibility, the more inclusivity will be fostered, and high quality work will be able to be made and seen.

 

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