The dangers of a single story

Neighbours, everybody needs good neighbours
With a little understanding
You can find the perfect blend.
Neighbours should be there for one another
That’s when good neighbours become good friends.

It is a Saturday morning on Ramsay Street. The sound of a lawn mower is drowned out by the diesel hum of a removalist truck blasting a Bollywood tune as it turns into Australia’s most famous cul-de-sac. Don’t like the look of the new Indian neighbours? Too bad: it’s 2012, and the Kapoors, the conspicuous new residents of the much-loved soap opera Neighbours, are here to stay.

Ramsay Street’s newest family is part of a deliberate campaign to diversify Australia’s most famous neighbourhood. The move has already met with public outrage: online comments criticising Network Ten’s decision have been filled with racist vitriol. Me? Well, I just hope that the Kapoor children have better luck in suburban Australia than I did.

The only black kid in my neighbourhood, I was forced to undergo a gruelling initiation into life in contemporary suburbia. Once, I was desperate to play hide-and-seek with the other kids, but Mark Scoble, the self-appointed lead in a cast of bullies, had other ideas: I was forced to drink his urine before I was allowed to participate.

Another popular game was to yank at my beaded extension braids as I walked past. The aim was to successfully uproot the hair extensions, and my scalped braids became collector’s items. Scoble and his gang were oblivious to the tears streaming down my face.

When I was around ten, The Fresh Prince of Bel Air began screening. I was so grateful to see a young black face on television. Trying to emulate actor Will Smith’s coolness – and desperate to climb the social ladder – I attempted a schoolyard rap:

Yo! My name is Tariro, I think I’m so cool
All the children in the block want to hear my new rule
If you want to play it funky, then you better play with me
I’m the best in the world and you’re gonna get it free.

Needless to say, I failed miserably.

I also remember, with great clarity, my first experience seeing a black female on an Australian television series. With her shoulder-length frizzy curls and long slender legs, Stephanie Mboto strolled along the sandy beach of Home and Away’s Summer Bay. My twelve-year-old self was startled and delighted at our resemblance. Stephanie was like me.

A young refugee from Somalia, she had smuggled her way into Summer Bay in the hope of being looked after by a resident who had earlier served as a peacekeeper in her war-torn homeland. Local teenagers Liam Tanner and Casey Mitchell quickly took her under their wing, and Stephanie and Liam became a couple.

My adolescent self was totally hooked, and it came as a complete surprise when Stephanie met her untimely end. Having gone adventuring with some of the other teenagers, Home and Away’s first African character ended up dangling from the edge of a cliff and eventually falling to her death.

Life is like that in Summer Bay – the buff, blond men surf the big waves, the skinny, bronzed chicks stroll the beach in string bikinis and the black refugees plummet to their deaths. Unlike Neighbours’ new Australianised Kapoor family, Stephanie Mboto had entered Australia illegally: a queue jumper on a fake passport. And in an Australian soap, certain doom has a way of finding such impostors.

It’s now fourteen years later, and I’m about to become one of the first African-born acting graduates of the Victorian College of the Arts. While channel surfing, I stumble across another Stephanie Mboto in Summer Bay. This time her name is Grace Johnson and she is involved in residency fraud, marrying Polynesian-Australian Elijah Johnson to secure proper medical treatment for her very ill son. Instead of falling off a cliff, Grace is punished by her son’s premature death. The government then uncovers Grace’s deception; in her final appearance on screen, she desperately pleads to stay in Australia while being carted off by immigration officials.

Watching, I find myself wondering if these are the only roles I will play, if the desperate ‘illegal other’ is the only way Australian viewers will accept racial and cultural diversity on television. If so, then were all my wonderful blind-casted roles at drama school pointless? Is there any value in playing Blair from Michael Gurr’s Perfume, Underwear and Crash Helmet, Nina from Chekhov’s The Seagull and Desdemona from Shakespeare’s Othello? What use is my vocal and technical training if I’m destined only to perform as a doomed refugee with a generic ‘African’ accent?

I start wondering if I should think seriously about moving abroad in search of stage and screen opportunities.

It is a perfect sunny day. The waiters at the riverside café are smiling and chatting. It is lunchtime and the place is filling up with men and women in business suits and corporate apparel. I’m with Wahibe Moussa, a bubbly and attractive Lebanese-Australian actor and writer. Wahibe and I met a few months earlier at a Melbourne International Arts Festival/Multicultural Arts Victoria masterclass exploring refugee-based documentary theatre. We choose a seat in the shade and order some grilled eggplant to share. She is bursting with enthusiasm, only too happy to discuss issues of visibility, representation and cultural diversity on Australian television.

‘There is a myth underpinning the fabric of our nation,’ Wahibe says. ‘A myth that Australia is a clean country, a tidy place, because we haven’t had a civil war. This myth permeates all aspects of Australian life, including our entertainment industry.’

This idea takes me aback, but I lean in closer, absorbed by what she is saying.

‘When migrants come to this country we enter into an invisible contract, an understanding to keep Australia clean. An artist’s role is to remind other Australians of the mud under this veneer of civilisation, because the reality is that it is cracking.’

Impassioned, Wahibe knocks over the salt-and-pepper shakers, making me laugh.

‘Look at the political structures set up in this society and what it is doing to people. Look at the inhumane treatment of refugees. Look at the fact that whenever public debates about Indigenous Australians get real, people go blind again and bury their heads’.

A truck pulls up nearby and drowns out our conversation. Wahibe apologises for the noise and then continues.

‘As artists we cannot – indeed we must not – take it for granted that Australians are unaware of their own political climate, because we run the risk of hitting people over the head with material. This is harmful to our growth as a nation.’

As she says this, I can’t help but picture scenes from well-intentioned fringe theatre works I’ve both attended and participated in. Several months ago, I and two other African-Australian women stood at the top of the steep stairs dividing the auditorium at Federation Square’s BMW Edge. Descending towards the stage slowly and mournfully, we sang the old Negro spiritual ‘Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child’. The three of us are members of Still Waters, a storytelling group for women of African descent, and we were performing a short musical choreo-poem as part of a multicultural dialogue at the annual Light in Winter Festival. One young black woman in each aisle, we moved slowly towards a seated panel, each person representing a different part of the world, but collectively symbolising the Australian multicultural story. When we reached the stage and turned to face the audience, I was immediately disappointed to see no more than thirty people sparsely populating the 200 or so seats.

‘Our role is to show the citizens of our nation ways of going beyond the parameters we have collectively set ourselves. We need to let ourselves be burnt in order to grow from our infancy as a nation.’ Wahibe’s voice cuts through my thoughts. The glaring stage lights of BMW Edge flicker, and I am brought back to our discussion in the café.

The phrase ‘We need to let ourselves be burnt in order to grow’ keeps ringing in my ears as I return home from the interview. I plonk myself tiredly on the lounge and absentmindedly switch on the television. The SBS station identifier and tagline, ‘6 billion stories and counting’, glows.

On screen, vibrant psychedelic patterns morph in and around one another. African children are singing in a familiar vernacular over African drumming. An English RP voice rides over the other sounds, informing viewers about Toumtaka, a village in Africa.

‘6 billion stories and counting.’

I think about how the experiences of Stephanie Mboto and Grace Johnson don’t reflect my own story. I think about how none of the billions of stories told on SBS seem to mirror the story of African skilled migrants. My own father was the head of Zimbabwe Polytech, one of the country’s largest and oldest colleges. After the White Australia Policy, as part of a drive to recruit skilled migrants from across the Commonwealth, my father was offered an academic position in Monash University’s School of Business and Marketing. He accepted the post, and two years later, the rest of my family – me, my mother, my older brother and my two younger sisters – followed his journey to the land down under.

The destination: Frankston.

It was a very difficult move. We had belonged to the higher echelon of Zimbabwean society and we lost our life of affluence: gardeners, cooks, housekeepers and nannies. We arrived in the neighbourhood streets of Frankston with next to nothing. I remember faintly the day we woke up early and left our big house in Marondera. Even at the age of five, I remember feeling with absolute certainty that something very big was happening.

Something very big did happen: I grew up with dual identities. Visually I am African, but culturally I am a hybrid: Vegemite, my favourite spread; ugg boots and flannelette shirts among my most worn apparel. I have an Aussie accent, yet I dance like my spirit has never left my motherland, and I was gifted with a deep resonant singing voice.

‘6 billion stories and counting.’

I want to see African-Australians like me in Australian television shows: a female surfing champion in Summer Bay, or a teenager over the Ramsay Street fence – ordinary neighbours who just happen to be black. I want to see me. And I can’t see what’s so controversial about that.

Out of the relative whitewashing of the Australian story there occasionally leaps some colour. SBS’ Kick is set in the Melbourne suburb of Brunswick and follows the lives of a multicultural neighbourhood that includes Lebanese-Australian, Greek-Australian, Anglo-
Australian, Serbian-Australian and Vietnamese-Australian families. The ABC’s highly acclaimed eight-part miniseries The Slap, an adaptation of Christos Tsiolkas’ novel of the same name, is small-screen diversity at its best, showing Greek-Australians, Asian-Australians and Australians of colour co-existing in an inner-city suburb as a matter of fact, rather than a political statement. A huge part of this series’ success is the fact that the writer is Greek-Australian.

But even initiatives such as Blacktown City Council’s African Theatre Project and Melbourne’s Still Waters storytelling group – projects dedicated to increasing the diversity of voice and representation in Australian writing, stage and television – cannot work alone to get their stories heard by a mass audience.

In Australia, some lobby and industry groups are making headway on diversity and representation. Actors Equity has recently secured agreement from the Screen Producers Association of Australia (SPAA) and Live Performance Australia (LPA) to attach a ‘Colour-Blind Casting Policy’ to their contracts with directors and casting consultants. Currently, Actors Equity is in discussions with SPAA about maintaining records and collecting statistics relating to ethnicity, gender and disability for all auditions, interviews and hirings. SPAA and LPA are also supportive of developing colour-blind casting workshops to promote racially inclusive policies and behaviour.

A few months later, I’m thinking about blind-casting, the discussion with Wahibe and the public backlash against Neighbours’ new Indian-Australian residents as I’m selecting material to perform for Agent’s Day, a mammoth end-of-year event where casting directors, casting agents, agents and directors are invited to a graduate showcase.

Selecting material is almost as important as the performance itself. I wonder, with anguish, about whether to perform a culturally specific monologue – the West Indian spirit medium, for instance, or the African air spirit. I know this is probably my best bet for finding work quickly. I also fear that, if I take this route, I will one day become the cliff-dangling Stephanie Mboto or the deported Grace Johnson.

‘6 billion stories and counting.’ But where is mine?

It’s mid-December 2011 and I am at the Melbourne Theatre Company’s Lawler Studio. Butterflies beat in my stomach as I stand on the side of the stage, looking nervously out at the rows of seats filled by industry personnel. I’m standing with twenty-one other hopeful graduates, dressed in smart stage blacks. Piano keys start their opening tune and the VCA’s Class of 2011 enters in small groups, singing and grooving to ‘Mama told me not to come’.

Open up your window let some air into this room, I think I’m almost choking …
Open up your window let me catch my breath!
Mama told me not come. Mama told me not come.

In slow motion, I pick up a clear umbrella and a small black book. James, my scene partner, meets me in the centre of the stage. James transforms into Bill, a man getting drenched by the rain. Bill sees Betty, my character, under an umbrella. He begins to ask if he can share the umbrella with her but she rejects him abruptly. Bill tries again using the same words but a different approach. Again, he is knocked back. On the third attempt Bill is successful, and the pair move on to talk about the novel Betty is reading. Eventually they leave together to go on a date.

The scene is our adaptation of American playwright David Ive’s Sure Thing. I am just a woman, under an umbrella, trying to read a Faulkner novel. It is incidental that I am black.

During the showcase, agents scribble notes about who they might be interested in putting on their books. At the following lunch banquet, and during the few agent interviews I attend, I’m spoken to candidly about how, though colour-blind casting has been talked about for a while, it will be some time before it becomes the dominant model used in the Australian entertainment industry. It’s refreshing to hear from one agency that they specifically put forward actors that directors wouldn’t normally have in mind to challenge the status quo and to ensure actors from culturally diverse backgrounds have the same opportunities as Anglo actors.

A few weeks later, exhausted from the stress that comes after Agent’s Day, I turn on my computer and discover an email from Bell Shakespeare inviting me to audition for the lead female role in Molière’s School for Wives. The play is being directed by Lee Lewis as part of the company’s 2012 program. I’m ecstatic, washed over with bliss. I am an Australian actor, about to audition for a lead role with one of Australia’s premier ensembles. And I just happen to be African-Australian. I immediately read through the suggested audition scene and check the library’s webpage to see if the book is available.

I later find out that three other VCA actors have been offered an audition for the role. There are stark differences in appearance between the three of us, and I hope in my heart of hearts that this is indeed indicative of blind-casting at its best.

Weeks later, the audition is held in a rehearsal room at the Melbourne Theatre Company. I note again, with both hope and surprise, that the actor auditioning immediately before me has dark hair and an olive complexion.

The actor comes out of her audition, gives me a genuine smile and wishes me the best of luck. I begin repeating quietly to myself my personal mantra: ‘How strong is your vision? Do you fear? Dare to take the risk!’

Lewis’ friendly and professional assistant comes out, introduces herself and directs me to the audition room. I am greeted by Lewis’ very casual and laid-back manner as she invites me to take a seat to have a chat. Immediately she puts me at ease. We talk briefly about me and then the rest of the conversation is about the play.

The time comes to perform and Lewis asks me if I require a chair during the scene. I decline politely and begin the scene standing.

The audition goes well, but only time will tell whether Bell Shakespeare is ready to put a blind-casted African-Australian in a production.

I start my journey into the Australian acting industry open-eyed and wary, but also enthusiastic and hopeful.

It is a Saturday morning on Ramsay Street. The sound of gates shutting in white-picket fences combines with the chaotic jingle of front doors being locked frantically. African children sing in a familiar vernacular over African drumming. Two young black girls sit on a font porch, taking turns to thread beads onto each other’s braids as they wait for the removalist van to arrive with their family’s belongings. Don’t like the look of the new African neighbours? Too bad: it’s 2016, and the Deng family, the conspicuous new residents of Ramsay Street, are here to stay.

Tariro Mavondo

Tariro Mavondo is an actor and writer. She is a founding member of Still Waters African Women’s Storytelling Collective and a national finalist at the 2010 Australian Poetry Slam.

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