Joel Bray’s Daddy is the latest in a series of formally audacious works that are revolutionising Australian performance. Bryan Andy unpacks its Blak and queer contexts
Before Daddy at Arts Centre Melbourne, where it played as part of the Midsumma Festival, I had only seen five works of theatre that spoke directly to Aboriginal and queer* experience.
The first was Noel Tovey’s Little Black Bastard, an autobiographical journey into his life as an institutionalised and incarcerated Aboriginal gay man who escapes the shackles of Australia to tellingly find worth elsewhere. It’s a play that is as formative to my love of theatre, just as it has been seminal to the growing space created for Blak and queer stories in our theatres.
Yorta Yorta songwoman Lou Bennett’s Show us Your Tiddas (Melbourne Workers Theatre, 2007) uses the form of an intimate musical to tell a tale that lands in a place of triumph after much adversity from an Aboriginal and lesbian perspective. Then there’s Gurindji-man Kamahi Djordon King’s Constantina Bush and the Bushettes – a post-NT Intervention drag show presented in a small season at Gasworks Arts Park in 2010, which was politically unapologetic, if a little slap-dash.
‘At the core of Daddy is an urgent call for understanding, empathy, solidarity and heart’
The very funny Chasing the Lollyman (La Mama, 2010) by Murri-fella Mark Sheppard holds a gay lens to a suite of warm and poignant insights into Aboriginal community life on “the Mish” – short for Mission, an abbreviation born from the ‘Protection’ era in Australian history when Aboriginal people were confined to Missions and Reserves.
Finally, Jacob Boehme’s Blood on the Dancefloor was a transcendent celebration of queer love and Blak pride that mapped a tender journey through the stigmatised territories of being a “light-skinned” Aboriginal as well as a person living with HIV.
Daddy raised the bar for me (yeah, yeah pun intended) with its fearless dance theatre take on Aboriginality and the anguished landscape it uncovers, that can seem all too pervasive in the lives of Blak and queer peoples.
I first met Bray in the beer garden of Weelam Ngalut (“Our Place”), between shows as part of the inaugural Yirramboi First Nations Arts Festival in 2017. I was smoking a cigarette when Joel asked me for light. We did the obligatory Aboriginal greeting of “Who your mob? Where you from?”, and as we got our respective hits of nicotine, we summarised our lives. He spoke of his time in Israel, and how he was Wiradjuri, which led me to blurt out the story of how my Wiradjuri Nan met my Yorta Yorta Pop. All in the span of a cigarette, maybe two.
Joel had just landed in Melbourne and in the course of our chat he invited me to one of his dance classes at Chunky Move. I was too shame to tell him that I’m as graceless as a new-born giraffe on the dancefloor. … Yeah, nah not me.
I later googled the class, noting that it wasn’t a beginner class, but an intermediate one. In an open and fiercely lit dance studio with mirrors all round and others there to dance, dance, dance. I promptly closed that Chrome tab. I don’t think I’d seen Joel since.
‘Daddy serves as a hybrid of two seemingly separate social worlds’
Expressing myself with my body isn’t my strong point. I’m a writer, me. Joel is too, in how he paints emotions with words, but he’s also a captivating, purposeful and dedicated dancer.
Daddy is part of a trilogy, a suite of dance theatre works that have delved into decidedly intimate insights into Bray’s fascinating life and his family history. I understand his trilogy explored subjects such as his Aboriginality and homosexuality, along with sexual intimacy and obligation, dislocation, homelands, passing glances, casual sex and a lonely life abroad and at home. Daddy serves as a hybrid of two seemingly separate social worlds.
It reminded me of the countless times I’ve heard a fellow gay say, “I’ve never met an Aboriginal before”, or the more presumptuous or post-coital, “I’ve never slept with an Aboriginal guy before”, speaks to the divided nature of the communities I occupy and try to exist in.
Daddy bridges those two seemingly separate worlds in an admirable attempt to gel the highs and lows, the shared oppressions and insecurities, the associated, often-necessary therapy sessions, and all the life’s pressures that abound in between.
Daddy’s not for the faint- or hard-hearted. The show spans an emotional spectrum that is as broad as it is necessary, to best illuminate the devastating effects of colonisation on Aboriginal peoples, and the isolating impacts it has on those of us who are doubly marginalised.
At the core of Daddy is an urgent call for understanding, empathy, solidarity and heart. We all have insecurities and vulnerabilities, and what I found most disarming and vital was Bray’s willingness to go there and lay them bare. Experiencing Daddy hit a nerve.
The show signals a welcome and continuing confidence (props to Boehme & co. above) in experimenting with the way Aboriginal stories are told, using dance and movement as a basis to blend storytelling and memory, sound, live audio-visuals, cheeky painted props and – it’d be remiss of me not to point out – confectionery.
Intimacy is a welcome arrow in Bray’s bow. Daddy’s 70 minutes map an emotionally charged terrain that at times had me on the verge of tears. Other moments in the show left me enraged and incensed. In one joyous moment, thanks to Bray’s infectious charisma and dance class flair, I found myself happily fist-pumping the heavens above, on the prowl in a gay club, busting moves and hunting love. No giraffe legs this time.
Joel Bray’s Daddy does up the ante of the Blak and queer canon in how it involves its avid and enthusiastic audiences; it shook within me a complacency that I feel I’ve held for a little too long in how our canon sits with in the mainstream.
‘Daddy raised the bar for me (yeah, yeah, pun intended) with its fearless dance theatre take on Aboriginality and the anguished landscape it uncovers’
While I have every faith in the storytelling nous of Blak and queer mob and our audiences, I am wary of Australia’s cultural institutions and their inability to lean into our insights and offer financial and developmental support to ensure that our stories shine and, in turn, reach their full cultural, social and artistic potential.
Daddy’s sell-out success signals something we need to reflect upon as an industry. In acknowledging its minority within a minority “nichey-ness”, and putting aside the gammon (Blak for “bullshit”) notion that a white bum on a theatre seat is the only market that will serve a box office – there are broader audiences, more diverse mobs that want to see works like Daddy. Please sir, I want some more.
Then again, pondering white rump (*wink*), aren’t they the types that need to be exposed to diverse stories and insights in our theatres in order to break the culturally, socially and artistically limiting chains of Australia’s past? Doesn’t theatre serve that very purpose? Is Australia too full of Scott Morrison’s Quiet Australians? Do those questions need to be confined to the otherwise rhetorical realm of a Blak and queer lad from a little village called Cummeragunja?
I’m proppa tired, true, of the plethora of straight, white, male voices in our theatres; and if the decade-long improvement in gender equality within Australia’s theatres is anything to go by, we can do better; we can actively welcome more growth and greater diversity on our mainstages to include valid voices that aren’t so ho-hum heteronormative, that aren’t so white.
And in considering Blak and queer stories from our side of the campfire, it releases a delightful, resilient truth-telling that often feels bound by a white agenda that’s developed over time in Australia. It feels like a response to the oppressive constraints of Australia’s history.
Daddy signals a willingness to stretch the genre and walk new ground that makes my Blak and queer heart brim with hope; hope that we can get to a point where Blak and queer fictional narratives are exciting vehicles for emotional, cultural and sexual understanding, and flagrant gay abandon. Just like Hedwig and the Angry Inch. You feel me, my mob? Food for thought.
Daddy has proudly done the rounds: it debuted at the Arts House in North Melbourne in 2019, and was presented as part of the 2019 Liveworks Festival in Sydney; even Brisbane Festival gained itself a Blak & pink guernsey when it was shown there in September 2019.
Back in its birthplace Melbourne, the production sits in a subversive space, literally in the bowels of the Arts Centre. Bray’s anguished and heartfelt yarn is the antithesis of the church-like spire above that points to god.
There are knowing nods, through the use of a sailor costume, to the once scandalous art of Tom of Finland and Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s equally as challenging Queerelle. Jean Paul Gaultier’s camp and homoerotic aesthetic is gorgeously worked in too.
‘I’m proppa tired, true, of the plethora of straight, white, male voices in our theatres; and if the decade-long improvement in gender equality within Australia’s theatres is anything to go by, we can do better’
I also saw a pop-culture parallel in Bray with the tormented and needy David Fischer from HBO’s Six Feet Under. As Bray stood before a twinkly light blue-sequined backdrop, I had to contain what could have (what should have) been an outrageous camp squeal. Instead, I quietly and demurely clutched my pearls in awe, for I saw a cut and paste job of a scene from Six Feet Under in which an equally-as-needy David Fischer sees himself in a sailor costume on the stage in his seventh grade production of Anything Goes, as he watches his adopted son performing in a school play about the environment. Imitation is the best form of flattery. Daddy nailed the same aesthetic and emotional mark. Respect y’all. *black fist & nails painted emoji*
Instead of breaking into song as David Fischer does, Bray haplessly slaps his body against the floor between us, a flopping fish out of water, propelled by a desperate desire to find his own Daddy.
The country twang of Hedwig and the Angry Inch’s Sugar Daddy finds solidarity in the show’s title and Bray’s sweet tooth obsessions; and Bray finds the same conclusion of self-love and self-acceptance as Hedwig does in final frames of the film, when he walks stark naked, tentative but assured, from a dank and shrouded laneway into a bustling city street.
That’s not to say that Daddy entirely works. Bray is brilliant in how he moves and uses his body, and his script and SJ Norman’s dramaturgy upheld some successful moments: but there were times when I thought it was a bit too rich and laden.
A scene in which notions of Aboriginality and authenticity are scrutinised through a porn audition scenario was the point I felt the show faltered. Conflating comments on Aboriginality with a porn setting seems a hard ask, and the script tackled the subject in a pretty pedestrian way. I wonder if the scene could have banked on some directional consideration that allowed it to presented in another way that wasn’t so earnest? As a result I found it a bit too jarring and forced.
This affected how I digested the following scene as it built to a moment of rage, frustration and self-flagellating despair that, even so, I recognised and fully empathised with.
Germaine Greer’s essay On Rage – leaving her problematic views on transgendered mob aside for the moment – has a point in highlighting that in Australia it is not socially or culturally acceptable for Aboriginal peoples, in particular Aboriginal men, to have emotional outbursts or embody rage. Not like a white man can, nor, as she says in the introduction to her essay, like former federal National Party member Bob Katter.
I wondered how my fellow non-Indigenous audience members, and indeed other Australians – quiet, complacent or otherwise – might feel about that rage. I don’t know if it was Greer sitting pretty on my shoulder whispering in my ear, but it left me wanting something a little less didactic, a little more dynamic, in how the rage scene sat within the rest of the show.
The script is inspired, speaking authentically to a peripheral experience that not everyone will comprehend – which isn’t to say that I’m across all Bray has to say. But Daddy leaves a lot of room for those who might not go to the theatre for a cerebral jolt.
‘Bray finds the same conclusion of self-love and self-acceptance as Hedwig does in final frames of the film, when he walks stark naked, tentative but assured, from a dank and shrouded laneway into a bustling city street’
There’s plenty of fun to be had in a delightfully superficial sense, in the way Bray flirtatiously encourages us to film him in his tight briefs, and to take shots for Instagram. As countless others pulled out their mobile phones, I felt downright dowdy – I had cloaked my devices, and bore witness with nothing more than a $2 notebook and a $7 biro.
I found Bray’s intimacy and vulnerability unnerving at times, which speaks directly to my own experiences of rejection as an Aboriginal and gay man. Gays can be brutal and expedient in forums like Grindr or Scruff. When I’ve “come out” as Aboriginal via those apps I’ve been immediately blocked by potential suitors. Those who aren’t as brutal will converse out of obligation, until there’s a notable imbalance between my questions and theirs.
Because of these experiences, I found myself eagerly watching others participate in Daddy’s assertive, compounding and inclusive statement of the Aboriginal and gay experience.
Bray’s voice is valid and vital to all of us working, playing, living and loving on Aboriginal land. It’s as valid as a Yolgnu yarn or a Pascoe insight that challenges Australia’s colonial constructs;or a tome compiled by a blessed white Australian (may he rest in peace) and an Aboriginal man, that details over 500 voices, all of whom have been affected by Australia’s past child removal policies.
Bray frustratedly and frustratingly reminds us, that the “past” child removal policies continue to affect Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families and communities at increasing rates today. In 2020.
This show is part of a welcome shift in Arts Centre Melbourne’s slow-burn commitment, through programming initiatives like Big World Up Close and the young, Blak and deadly Future Echoes, to developing and supporting local stories and stories from afar that aren’t so gleamingly and overwhelmingly white and non-queer. As an audience member, it’s been reassuring to watch the Arts Centre tentatively dip its toes into new waters and present new work, new worlds, new voices, new artforms, via a bevy of new and sometimes not-so new artists and creatives.
And, just quietly, it’s great to see Midsumma change its get-up over the years too, from being a generic, blonde-wigged, blue-eyed, twink-like stick in stilettos to becoming a big-bosomed, wide-berthed, less acerbically-lipped coloured Queen that can talk shop to us all. Go girl, we love you!
Just as in the broader Australian population, the gay “community” is a contested battleground within Australia, conflating class and race with “preferences” that speak directly to covert prejudices, and success stories, tragedies, and ever-growing numbers of married couples waving from behind white picket fences, integrated into the mainstream – a place we’re told is desirable and safe. The more we can see and experience diversity, and learn how to live together, the better off we all are.
There’s something revolutionary in what Daddy proposes as a work of art – it resists homogenisation in relation to its comments on Aboriginal identity; it resists complacency in the way the work demands that the audience participate and engage by walking around the space it’s presented in; it also resists colonisation by presenting Aboriginal testaments about the injustices prevalent in Bray’s life, and in the lives of too many Aboriginal people in Australia.
‘It’s great to see Midsumma change its get-up over the years too, from being a generic, blonde-wigged, blue-eyed, twink-like stick in stilettos to becoming a big-bosomed, wide-berthed, less acerbically-lipped coloured Queen’
There’s a real strength in the way the show begins, Bray tentatively, almost apologetically asks audience members for their assistance to hold a canvas backdrop while he strikes a pose creating tableau after participatory tableau of famous European and Australian art. The final tableau features a backdrop that is symbolic of the work of Eugene von Guerard, a prolific Austrian-born Australian artist who was celebrated in the mid-1800s.
I have always found his watercolor and oil paintings good for a laugh, the way his famed landscapes have this clunky, NQR quality. Von Guerard’s trees don’t exactly look like real eucalypt trees, they’re a bit too graceful, pruned and affected; similarly his take on the shrubs of Australia fit comfortably in a European vista, as opposed to the Aboriginal landscape. His work is celebrated because it sits within a familiar colonial framework intent on taming Aboriginal land, as much as it intends to tame Aboriginal peoples to this day.
The use of von Guerard in Daddy is an unequivocal statement on Australia’s belligerent insistence that Aboriginal peoples conform to ignorant notions of what it is to be Aboriginal. As audience members dust Bray’s face and body with white icing sugar, Bray’s effectively saying, “Australia, you mob wanna pull up!”
It’s been said that Aboriginal peoples are the most studied people in the world. I’d argue that we’re also the most mediated – culturally, politically, socially and even intimately. It’s fucking hard finding love and lasting connections in Melbourne’s gay world as an Aboriginal man.
My own intimacies have often been cut short by the bitter voices of petulant ghosts from the past who have seen me as nothing more than someone to bolster their own social, artistic, political and sexual currency: someone who they, in turn, can tame.
Which is why, amid all of the harrowing and anguished pain of Daddy, I choose to hold on to a moment at the beginning of the performance when Bray is bent over on a pink rostrum in his shimmering pink shorts.
It’s an assertively sexualised pose that can be read in two ways – as sexual vulnerability, displayed for the purposes of another’s gratification; or as a self-willed means to sexual satisfaction, full of agency and consent.
In that moment, Bray reminded me of A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby, an installation created in 2014 by artist Kara Walker in the Domino’s Sugar Factory, Brooklyn, shortly before it was demolished through the process of gentrification. I saw Walker’s Sphynx when Bray bent over in seeming supplication, a vision of wanting to be satisfied, wanting to be loved.
Like Bray, Walker uses sugar as a means to explore history, racism and social power; and the resulting identities that people either have through their own free will and self-determination, or warped identities that are malignantly formed within a confected culture that ignores the truth and upholds “alternative facts”.
Historically, manufacturers went to great lengths to refine sugar to make it white. Historically, Australian governments went to great lengths to do the same to Aboriginal peoples. Before this point in Australian history, in a term coined at Coranderrk near Melbourne, white officials intended to “smooth the pillow of the dying race” – a euphemism, as Daddy attests, for genocide.
When they realised that genocide was neither achievable or humane, white officials changed tack, as exemplified in the various Australian state government’s official policies of Assimilation and Integration that sought to govern Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander lives. We weren’t deemed human enough to be governed by Federal law, like every other Australian.
Like Bray, Walker explores sexuality within her work. For A Subtlety, or the Marvelous Sugar Baby she created an awe-inspiring, gleamingly white sugar sculpture of an African American woman, with a headdress not unlike a “Mammy” housemaid, that sat like an austere Egyptian Sphynx, resting, bent over in a sexualised pose of seeming supplication. She is as regal as she is challenging, relying on all of the tropes of America’s racist history, and serves them to us in a contemporary moment bound by race, class, economics, fetishisation and gentrification.
Two messages – one for America and one for Australia – spanning two hemispheres. Unequivocally universal to the core.
*I use this term to be inclusive, not exclusive of the sexuality and gender identities Aboriginal LGBTIQ+ peoples use. I acknowledge that the acronym doesn’t pay homage to Sistergirls and Brotherboys. In light of these limits, you’ll note that I settle on Blak and queer as a term of inclusion. In using the term Blak I purposefully challenge the racist notions held by too many non-Indigenous peoples who ignorantly believe that Aboriginality is definable by the colour of one’s skin; I also use Blak in honour of the artistic and political precedent that artist Destiny Deacon has set.
Daddy, created and performed by Joel Bray. Set and costumes by James Lew, composition and sound design by Naretha Williams, lighting and AV design by Katie Sfetkidis, collaborating director Stephen Nicolazzo, collaborating performer Niharika Senapati, dramaturgy SJ Norman, produced by Josh Wright. The Arts Centre, Melbourne as part of Midsumma Festival. Closed.