"What would an Australian theatre production that was one-hundred per cent produced - on every level of arts creation - by people of colour [look like]?"
This question, posed by editor and Miles Franklin-shortlisted author Michael Mohammed Ahmad is what threads the four parts of multi-screen installation Sex, Drugs and Pork Rolls together. His aim? To use the stories of four Western Sydney writers to stitch together the fabric of Australia as it is, not as it has been white-washed to give the appearance of being.
Walking into the small, darkened Lennox Theatre at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres, audiences are faced with a choice as to which of the four large screens set up on each of its walls they'll face. In innocuous, gentle conformity, most flock to sit in front of the screen furthest from and opposite to the entrance – but heads will soon be swivelling around to take in all corners of the theatre, as the show unravels its immersive, gritty turbulence around us.
Each of the four stories in the production directed by S. Shakthidharan – known for his highly acclaimed production of Belvoir Street Theatre's epic Counting and Cracking – tracks a character through Western Sydney on the night that Donald Trump is elected to the White House in 2016. But that’s a fairly low concern on these characters' lists of problems.
Emily Havea artfully captures both the derision and the vulnerability of the main character in Winnie Dunn’s piece, a mixed-race Tongan woman desperate for a way out of Mount Druitt. In a skin-tight red skirt, Havea leans against the bonnet of a beat-up car and takes meaty, ASMR-esque bites of a pork roll after a date with a white bodybuilder who doesn’t hide the fact that his attraction to her hinges on the fact that she’s “so skinny for a fob”. In Stephen Pham’s piece, a night-time bakery brawl over pork rolls is interpreted (or excused) as duplicitous flirtation. Shirley Le’s piece follows Aileen Huynh on a gleeful, guilt-laden, shroom-induced trip through Bankstown. The inimitable Hazem Shammas (Safe Harbour, Underbelly), through Omar Sakr's words, transforms into a gay Muslim who straddles both his faith and his sexuality – and sometimes, that leads to blowjobs behind the bakery.
Assembled over eight years and bent into shape after a series of revisions and substitutions of key players – Maryam Azam’s story was originally involved, but is not in the final work, while poet Omar Sakr (The Lost Arabs) joined the team more recently than the others – but Ahmad’s vision didn’t waver at its core. All cast and crew are from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds – and they're here to tell the story of Western Sydney as it really is. Sunlit, serene dreamscapes are interspersed with the fluorescent lighting and gaudy blue seats of a Sydney bus. Characters swing around grimy lampposts. Mothers stroke their daughters' heads. Havea’s character smirks across the street as she watches Shammas' character, who she calls ‘Bin Laden’, in a scrum with a gay Vietnamese man.
"When I first read the Sex, Drugs and Pork Rolls script, I recoiled," director Shakthidharan says. "Not out of disgust or fear, but because of how sharp the reflection was; of who we are, and the loss of what we could be. I hadn't heard these thoughts voiced out loud before. It was almost too much to take.
“Winnie, Shirley, Omar and Stephen, working with Mohammed, have written something almost from the subconscious; an unflinching portrayal of the forces in society that eat away at us and the deeply human ways we try to mitigate that loss."
The platonic ideal of multicultural, melting pot Australia this is not. In Sex Drugs and Pork Rolls, whiteness is not the default that these characters find their way around: they don’t define themselves in opposition to it, or in parallel with it. Western Sydney is allowed multiple, varied vantage points. It’s up to you to choose where you sit and watch it from.