Produced, written and performed by people of colour, Sex, Drugs & Pork Rolls signals a new wave of Australian storytelling, says Ruby Hamad
Sex, Drugs & Pork Rolls, an unflinching new production that premiered at the Riverside Theatre last week for the Sydney Festival, triumphantly affirms that we are in the midst of a powerful new era in the Australian arts.
Directed by Helpman Award-winner S.Shakthidharan (Counting and Cracking), it’s a theatre-film hybrid consisting of four pre-filmed monologues shot in Sydney’s Western suburbs and projected onto four large screens that surround the socially distanced audience. This technique works well, with the action shifting smoothly from screen to screen as the four characters begin their slow convergence, culminating in a bloody altercation outside the Vietnamese bakery serving those eponymous late-night pork rolls.
Sharing the writing credits are Winnie Dunn, Shirley Le, Stephen Pham and Omar Sakr, whose sharply crafted observations on life out West are delivered by four young actors, who, like everyone else involved in the production, come from non-white backgrounds. The action unfolds over the course of a single night in the Western Suburbs, which also happens to be the night Donald Trump was elected 45th president of the United States in 2016. Although it may seem odd to have a foreign event serve as the backdrop, as Le explains to the ABC, “The sexism and racism perpetrated by Trump, that is not an imported problem to Australia.”
A monologue by Le (Aileen Huynh) comically portrays a magic mushroom trip gone wrong while grappling with the contradictions of the immigrant experience, particularly in how rapidly some take on the prejudices of the dominant culture. Aileen’s mother thinks Muslims “have too many children”, but was herself “born into a family of six”. Dunn and Sakr portray themselves as characters in the script, who are superbly performed by stand-outs Emily Havea and Hazem Shammas respectively. They tackle sexuality from vastly different but equally frustrated perspectives. Dunn’s character finds her fellow Tongans, like all brown men, repulsive and locates fleeting validation – although not orgasms – in “Ed Sheeran lookalikes on steroids”.” Sakr’s character is agonisingly attracted to another young Arab man, Salim, whose brusqueness he accepts on the logic that “the closet is a revolving door” for young men like them.
The striking blend of on-location filming with overtly theatrical performances delivered to camera as if to a live audience does come at the possible expense of a rapport between the audience and the cast. Some of the scenes may have benefited from a little more subtlety, as befits motion picture rather than live theatre performance. These were the moments I wished the actors were there with us, so it was unsurprising to later learn that Shakthidharan’s pre-pandemic plans did involve live performance.
This is, however, a minor issue. The taut script is peppered with humour, making it as delightful as it is daring, and seamless in its finale as the characters inevitably cross each other’s paths. This is not an easy task, given each of the four writers were responsible for their own narrative strands. As well as demonstrating the value of a good script editor – in this instance Michael Mohammed Ahmad, author of Miles Franklin-shortlisted The Lebs and founder of Sweatshop – what is most exciting is not so much what the writers chose to highlight but how they did it.
Late-night sex hook-ups, drug trips gone bad and the drudgery – and danger – of overnight shifts at a bakery as repressed sexual attraction erupts into performative violence are not virgin territory. These are handled with a welcome refusal to play to either the white gaze on the look-out for confirmation bias, or the intra-cultural gatekeepers who insist the only way to avoid the scrutiny of the dominant culture is to perform a version of brownness that doesn’t really exist.
That said, the writers don’t shy away from the travails of internalised racism. Dunn’s character, who is Tongan but also white, reveals she only dates white guys because they “make her feel safe”. But none of them ever calls her back. Henry Vo, performing Stephen Pham’s monologue,works the graveyard shift in his parent’s Vietnamese bakery and is suspicious of seemingly all his Arab customers, referring to Sakr’s character as “Bin Laden in a football jersey”.
Sakr pays it forward (backward?) in calling Dunn’s character a “Pocahontas-looking chick.” Meanwhile, Aileen freely spills the disdain much of her own Vietnamese family has for other immigrants, including an aunt living in America who voted for Trump because, “Mexican dealing drug. They raping”. “She is just as confusing as Mum,” Aileen confides. “Her own son did time dealing coke in San Jose.”
This is a glimpse into the life of young people in some of Australia’s most derided postcodes. In less sympathetic hands, these characters could have come across as sneering and their stories bleak. But told with humour as well as directness against the rise of an increasingly right-wing world, they are just young people making mistakes as they seek freedom, fun, intimacy, and, of course, food – even Dunn’s character, who is determined to stand out from her pack by starving herself to be “the skinniest Tongan in Australia”.
A few years ago, I suggested that the release of “Muslim rom-com” Ali’s Wedding, written by and starring Osama Sami, and Amal Awad’s non-fiction book Beyond Veiled Cliches: The Real Lives of Arab Women, “could signal something I’ve been waiting to see for a long time – Muslim and Arab storytellers heading in a new and exciting direction in telling their stories. One that can recreate the good times without pretending the bad never existed.”
Sex, Drugs and Pork Rolls continues in the pioneering vein of Sami and Awad. Although all three of these artworks are very different in their chosen medium their style, scope and subject matter, what they all share is a rejection of the overwrought exposition of trauma and intergenerational dramatics expected in tales about growing up brown in Australia. Also absent is any attempt to curry goodwill with the white majority in favour of an honest examination of the robust complexity of their characters’ humanity. “I wanted to shine a light on the experience of a queer Arab Muslim man in Western Sydney who is not torn between his faith and sexuality, but living with both,” explains Sakr.
In doing so, this new wave of Australian storytellers not only reflects this country more faithfully than the white-dominated arts traditionally have: they expose to the harsh but cleansing sunlight all those cumulative scars that come with being brown in a country that believes it is white but has always been Black.
Sex, Drugs and Pork Rolls, written by Winnie Dunn, Stephen Pham, Shirley Le and Omar Sakr, directed by S.Shakthidharan. Script editor Michael Mohammed Ahmad, cinematographer and film editor Akil Ahamat, composer Aimée Falzon, costumes Nancy Trieu. Performed by Emily Havea, Aileen Huynh, Hazem Shammas, Henry Vo, Mert Altunsoy, Alissar Chidiac, Taofia Pelesasa and Susan Young. Presented by Utp and Sweatshop in association with Sydney Festival at Riverside Theatres, Parramatta. Closed.