Star crossed lesbian lovers, a dead lesbian chorus and some pretty gay songs – Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit as part of the Poppyseed Festival promises to be fun, campy, politically irreverent and casually incisive. I spoke to writer, director and lyricist Jean Tong about putting together the show and borrowing classic romantic tropes, the steep learning curve of directing her first/second show, and how opening night coincides with the release of divisive, unnecessary postal vote results release.
It’s 2017, and according to Tong, the world is still telling the same, tired old story about queer people of colour and our access to spaces.
“Our inspiration for this show was finding a response to the Bury Your Gays trope, which is a hangover from 1930s censorship laws barring positive representation or discussion of queerness. This meant that queer characters could only be represented as having inevitably tragic lives, and this trope lives on in contemporary media representation, continuing to affect the way the queer community is able to envision ourselves and our futures” Tong said.
“This trope is particularly prevalent in stories involving queer women-of-colour, and Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit is our fun, campy, politically irreverent response”.
The initial development for Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit was through student theatre collective DisColourNation, supported by The University of Melbourne TheatreBoard and UMSU Creative Arts Department. Members from that collective include current cast members Sasha Chong, Margot Tanjutco, and Pallavi Waghmode, and the show was initiated by their interest in looking at how queerness intersects with racial identities.
“We’ve borrowed Juliet and the plot of Romeo and Juliet, but we’ve also grabbed Darcy (now a woman) from Pride and Prejudice. Our Verona is a majority-Asian, racist 1950s small town, and Juliet’s family is made up of her single mom and grandmother. We’ve also got a Dead Lesbian Chorus (made up of previous dead queer female characters) trying to get in the way of Juliet and Darcy’s epic romance, because if they manage to get together, they’re going to have to get killed off,” she said.
“So we’re building on the star-crossed lovers trope by intertwining it with the Bury Your Gays trope, and somewhere along the way we meet a whole bunch of other familiar, beloved narrative tricks including a meet-cute, dastardly plans, and our lovers’ hands touching”.
Tong is a writer and playwright, currently completing a Master in Writing for Performance at the VCA, who’s also working on a new show, hungry ghosts, at MTC in 2018.
“The initial development was co-written with current cast member Margot Tanjutco, and that version of the show used existing music with changed lyrics. Since then, during an 8-week writing/musical improvisational extravaganza with talented composer James Gales (Sailor Take Warning), I’ve worked through the book to tighten up the narrative, characterisation, and where the punches are thrown” she said.
“During that second development, I was closely supported by my dramaturg Kim Ho, and mentors including Will Hannagan, Petra Kalive, and Bridget Balodis. Their feedback was extensive and absolutely essential, and has led to the show coming together in the great shape it is now. I’ve got a very smart cast helping to finesse the rapid-fire show, and all of this is accompanied by a catchy electro-pop score”.
The only musical she’s previously directed was the first development of this work.
“It’s been a steep learning curve for me. Luckily, the team I’ve amassed is flat out brilliant. The cast has been incredibly generous with me, as have my production team. Their collective imagination about the show is really what makes it unique, and it’s been astoundingly pleasurable drawing their ideas out and building this world with them”, Tong said.
“I feel like we’re in a really good place. I’m excited to get into fine-tuning the decisions we’ve made so far and find a few last surprises before we enter the chaos of bump-in”.
She has a very simple dream for this show.
“The dream is to show-off the creative team around me. The bulk of them are people-of-colour, and I have this slightly rage-filled satisfaction about how easy it was to bring so many talented PoCs together on this show, and how easy it is working with them. The cast are killing it; the production team’s vision is gorgeous. If I ever hear the phrase “but it’s so hard to cast/hire people from [generic marginalised group identity]” again, I’ll just fling posters of this show at them” she said.
“On a serious note: it’s about what this story says about how we see ourselves in the world, and the tangent is representation and recognition. The show highlights the importance of queer representation and racial diversity, not because it’s politically correct, but because it has an effect on whom we are. Stories matter. How and which stories we consume matter. Who the people are in those stories matter”
The show is said to be cheeky, funny but also pissed off.
“We’re sick of constantly having to mine our own pain to ask for better from a voyeuristic audience: Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit is a show that says we deserve better but does so with a big hearty laugh that keeps us hopeful and the power in our court”.
There’s been a bit of an education process while creating the show, including around the “Bury Your Gays’ trope, which in popular culture presents itself as gay characters not having a happy ending, regularly killing them off after a happy moment, or consummating a same sex relationship, and then BAM. Much of the problem around this isn’t merely that gay characters are killed off: the problem is the tendency that gay characters are killed off in a story full of mostly straight characters, or when the characters are killed off because they are gay. It’s also pointed out as dead lesbian syndrome, and since 2015 we’ve lost more than 50 queer women on television, often in violent ways that benefit someone else’s story.
“An analysis led by queer American website Autostraddle revealed that on American TV (1976-2016), we got 18000+ straight TV characters and 383 queer women. Of those 383 queer women, 76 were left alive by the end of the series, and only 30 of those got happy endings”, said Tong.
“The primary question most people have asked is around the commonality of the Bury Your Gays trope as that relates to how legitimate the entire premise of the show is, which is understandable. Considering the actual statistics cut deep even for someone who’d innately recognised it (by not being able to find stories where we didn’t have to die all the time)”.
They didn’t plan it, but the opening night of the show coincides with the infamous, unreasonable, divisive ABS Marriage Equality Survey results being released.
“Among the vitriol and ignorance and flat-out hatred, this coincidence really drove home for me how our show can be a place where our community of queers, lovers, allies, and families can come together to celebrate queerness, women, and people of colour. For the two weeks after the results are released, whatever the outcome, the commentary is only going to get more vicious. We’re hoping to provide a place where people can gather to laugh and love with us” she said.
In her opinion we are not doing enough as a society to shift representations of the queer community.
“We’ve got centuries of shit to contend with – it’s getting slightly better, but it’s not good enough. Being able to connect with a queer character in a story, a character who isn’t punished, who doesn’t die tragically, who doesn’t become a moral, is still absolutely an exception, not a norm. Until then: no, no, no. Do better”.
Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit plays at the Butterfly Club from 14 to 26 November. Tickets at: https://thebutterflyclub.com/show/romeo-is-not-the-only-fruit