Joel Ma has some advice for anyone who cares to listen: talk to your grandparents, ask them questions and record their voices.
“One thing I’ve learned is that you need to ask your grandparents questions because when they go, so does the whole archive of their stories and the stories they heard from their parents and grandparents. It’s actually a really precious thing.”
Ma is a Melbourne-based rapper (AKA Joelistics) who, with Darwin musician and producer James Mangohig, is the co-creator of In Between Two, a critically acclaimed hip-hop performance piece that digs deep into two family histories and two men’s sense of self and belonging.
“It’s a show about family and the stories that come to you through your family,” Ma explains. “And it’s as honest and as real as two friends can get when they’re talking about who they are and their place in the world – and particularly about the crunchy nature of race and identity and music.”
In Between Two has its roots in a friendship forged while Ma and Mangohig toured together in the hip-hop outfit TZU, where they bonded over music and what Ma describes as their “complicated relationships with Australia, their fathers and their place in the world.”
That bond eventually resulted in a performance piece created for the Darwin Festival in 2014, which, with mentoring from photographer and theatre maker William Yang, eventually became In Between Two.
Ma and Mangohig’s family stories are very different. Ma’s father is Chinese-Australian and his grandparents, Charlie and Edith, were well-known Chinatown identities. Charlie ran a successful fruit and veg business. Edith was a partner in one of Sydney’s premier nightclubs, Chequers.
Mangohig’s family hail from a rural village in the southern Philippines. His father trained to become a preacher in Manila.
“James is from a really religious background and I’m from a family of radical hippies!” Ma laughs.
Maintaining their music careers at the same time, Ma and Mangohig have toured In Between Two around Australia. It always pulls a diverse crowd, ranging from raucous indigenous kids in Darwin to the demure ladies of the Sydney’s Chinese Women’s Association.
“There are a lot of middle class white people who will pay for theatre tickets no matter what and that’s fine, I’m like please buy those tickets!” Mangohig jokes.
“But the reason we do the show and the reason we are touring all over Australia is to reach those people who don’t normally come to the theatre. I had a Nepalese friend come see the show with his partner one night and the next night he brought his parents because he really wanted them to see it. That matters to me more than anything.”
In Between Two has evolved over the past five years. “The show is a living, breathing thing,” says Ma. “It changes as our lives change and as we learn more, we add to the show. It keeps pace with James and my discovery of our family and our history. It has really grown – and we have both grown from doing it.”