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"waves are being made"

Jordan Manalo-Shea unveils a second major work concerning a Filipino-Australian experience.

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Jordan Manalo-Shea: Writing My People

Date: 19 Jan 2018

Less than 24 hours before writing this, I saw My Name is Jimi at Belvoir.

Unequivocally it was one of the most educational, highly entertaining and most relieving pieces of theatre I’ve seen in some years.

It gave me a feeling I had only felt another time at around about age 10; that was seeing Latin-Filipino-American Lou Diamond Phillips in the film La Bamba, playing ill-fated teen idol Ritchie Valens.

What I saw up on that stage and on that screen, respectively, was normal. Jimi Bani was able to normalise a piece of theatre that 10 or 15 years ago would’ve been seen as “different”, or that dreaded word some artists of colour run from – “interesting”.

For me, La Bamba felt normal because Lou Diamond looked like some of my extended family.

Those two experiences were about 14 years apart. A few things happened between seeing those two texts that informed my practice, and assist my goal in attempt to normalise diversity.

I was 12 when the Cronulla Riots were happening two suburbs over from where we lived at the time.

I remember kids as young as I was taking sides, and I remember my Filipino-born grandmother, who survived the Japanese invasion in WWII, being scared for my wellbeing.

The riots, for me, were vengeful and aggressive. There was a tension I felt around that time that I attempt to write in a lot of my work, and it comes with being different. Being an energetic theatre-kid obsessed with musicals, and also being a person of colour, often created a lot of tension in the playground.

When I was 22, I went to the Victorian College of the Arts to study writing. I’d never written a single word about Asia. It wasn’t until Melissa Reeves asked us to adapt something during a class that I finally began to unearth a deep-seated interest in writing Asian characters.

For the record, my adaptation was of a relatively unknown Eugene O’Neill play and was a bit sloppy – but it worked. I figured that if I began to write about Asia, and about the Philippines specifically, it might grab someone’s attention.

It’s worth noting too, that Raimondo Cortese, the head of writing, always preached individuality whenever he taught me. For that I’m eternally grateful.

My mother, Agnes, came to this country in 1974 to study, like many others, as a student nurse in Balmain.

She had left a country where democracy was a dream. Her contributions as a woman of colour in the fields of healthcare, leadership and education are noteworthy, but her survival in a predominantly white bigoted 1970s Australia is something that I had long wanted to write about after being drip fed information over my adolescence.

The work I’m currently writing for Q Theatre, Kasama Kita, is about her graduating class of 1974-5. I’ve interviewed a handful of Filipina nurses in order to construct a narrative, and bring their dreams and stories to the stage.

This is my second major work concerning a Filipino-Australian experience. Shortly after my move back to Sydney, the Sydney Theatre Company picked up my play Barbaric Truth for development under their Rough Draft program.

It blended the current Duterte regime with the country’s deep history of martial law. I had not seen enough written about our people or seen their struggles, their contributions or their love shown on our stage. I’d always felt we were more than musical theatre stars padding out the choruses of Miss Saigon, or being cast as maids or gold-diggers.

Fortunately, the Q Theatre’s Q Lab, headed by Emele Uguvale and Nick Atkins, picked up Kasama Kita for further development. I have to say, the cynicism I held (and sometimes it comes back), is slowly starting to simmer because of opportunities granted to me by our next generation of artistic leaders.

We’re facilitating the work this week with three of the country’s best emerging Filo-Australian theatre makers, and with assistance by someone who is changing the game at rapid speed, Moreblessing Maturure. But for me, being in a room with people of colour, facilitated and led by leaders of colour, is something that should be so normal within our artistic community. This is what (I hope) our casts, artistic committees and award winners will slowly start to look like.

The Joan is a safe space to work. It’s an understanding space, and it’s one that is on the forefront of developing work that is created by artists responding to the world around them and their histories. I’ve certainly felt honoured to work with this team and in this space.

I still feel a deep sense of fear and anxiety whenever I pitch my play to some company.

I worry about articulating it. I worry it will be seen as deeply different from the norm. Will an audience want to know about the Asian-Australian diaspora?

Then I remember watching Lou Diamond on TV, shortly after a kid at my school called me a “Chink” (Hi Dane, if you’re reading this). I always think about watching Lou Diamond, because I’m reminded about how much of a fight it was to cast him in the role. And I believe that any person of colour who has a story to tell fights twice as hard to get their work up and running, to get it in the room and importantly; to stay protective over it. My fight is always going to be the same, it’s to normalise diversity, and to normalise our stories.

For me, it starts at training. In our institutions, our high school drama classes, and most importantly: our Indie sector. The places that I’ve been fortunate enough to study, reside and contribute to have really begun to normalise experiences that differ from White Australia. They’re not all there yet (name one company that is), but the waves are being made. For sure.

I look forward to seeing artists, writers and makers responding to the world around them whatever they identify as, and through whatever lens they feel appropriate. My mother’s stories of survival, my experience of being scared to go down to the beach with friends in December 2005, and my entire time at the VCA, have assisted me in seeing a world that I couldn’t see before.

I’m reminded of some of Jimi’s final words during his show, which will hopefully live in my memory vividly: “Life without culture is culture without life”.

For me, my work is a celebration of the deep traditions of Filipino storytelling, which means a celebration of my culture and more importantly, my people.

Kasama Kita: I’m With You is shown at 3pm, Friday January 19, at the Joan Sutherland Performing Arts Centre, Penrith.

Jordan’s play Cage plays at the Old 505 Theatre, February 27-March 3, part of the FreshWorks season.

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