5 Questions: Jean Tong

Interview by Leah Jing.

We talk to Jean Tong about her newest satirical pop musical, Romeo is Not the Only Fruit. Part of the Poppy Seed Theatre Festival, Romeo is Not the Only Fruit is showing at the Butterfly Club from Tuesday 14 November to Sunday 26 November. Buy tickets here

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What drew you to create Romeo is Not the Only Fruit?
The initial development for Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit kicked off through theatre collective DisColourNation, which included current cast members Sasha Chong, Margot Tanjutco, and Pallavi Waghmode. The first show the collective had created was The Unbearable Whiteness of Being, through which they interrogated the absence of people of colour onstage.

I was interested in working on the development of Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit because I wanted to see what kind of story we would end up telling if we moved away from centralising Whiteness to just centring ourselves and the stories we were interested in. Romeo became about looking at our queerness and how it intersects with racial identity.

From there, we built on the collective’s interest in what it meant to be so familiar with a longstanding canon that has historically excluded PoC, and what it would mean to simultaneously laugh at it, love it, and make it our own. Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit is an incursion into that canon, and probes the 'Bury Your Gays' trope, particularly with respect to queer women of colour. We’ve been sacrificed for other people’s stories long enough, and we’re taking that stage back—with razor-sharp jokes, catchy pop-hits-to-be, interracial romancing, and a Dead Lesbian Chorus pumped full of attitude.

The original development involved using existing songs and changing the lyrics, and we had a few additional characters. What kept me hooked on wanting to develop the show further was the strength of the collective and performers, and what sold me was what happened when those performers met this wacky, messy idea. I didn’t know what else to do with this wealth of talent in front of me except chuck them eight original songs and an independent production outside of student theatre.

What was the process behind the development of the play?
After the initial development, (supported by The University of Melbourne TheatreBoard and UMSU Creative Arts Department), we applied to Poppy Seed Theatre Festival to be a part of their 2017 season. Poppy Seed is a boutique festival that offers you a theatre for a two-week performance season in addition to other financial, logistical, artistic and marketing support. We feel privileged that they selected us as one of their five shows this year, which meant we were also given funding and were paired with The Butterfly Club, who have been incredible presenters, offering us rehearsal space and administrative/marketing support.

From July to August, the Romeo team embarked on a hectic eight-week writing/musical improv process to come up with one song per week. I’ve collaborated with brilliant composer James Gales (Sailor Take Warning), and we’ve been supported by composition/lyrical mentor Will Hannagan. The music is broadly pop, but we also link to other genres like the classic love duet, the rock ballad, and an ironic reverse-racist electro-rap, which lets us lean on some of the associations those genres bring. The tracks are all electronically produced so we make little tweaks in rehearsals, and as the cast personalise the music and lyrics, it’s all starting to settle!

My cast and crew have been incredibly supportive as I make desperate writerly cuts in the middle of directing and keep giving them new lines. They say yes to everything I want to try, then give me a way better offer. The successful development of this version of the show rests 100% on their shoulders.

Illuminating stories of queer women of colour, your goal very seems similar to ours at Liminal—giving greater representation to the under- or mis-represented. Why chase this goal?
At the most basic artistic level, it was that I had all these talented people around me whose brains I wanted to pick, and it’s so pleasurable and easy having them in the room with me developing this work. Not only are these artists incredible artistic presences, they’re also versed in power and politics and we all share a similar headspace about why we need to make these kinds of works. In practice that means we get to get down to the business of just creating the show without constantly battling the white–and heteronormative–gaze. We just get in the room and go about making great theatre, and it’s so rewarding.

On a personal level, I have a very visceral desire that I’m both discovering and fulfilling right now, which is just about finding an absolute joy in seeing something like this that makes my cynical heart sing (literally). I haven’t worked on a show about a queer romance before and it makes my whole body leap in a really delicious way because it’s so rare. It gives me some kind of impossible hope about being able to contribute something like Romeo to the current political landscape. Among the bullshit and the hate and the ignorance it’s a pleasure to be able to make something that would’ve maybe given my closeted little fourteen-year-old self a bit more courage to face the world.

You’ve written that your work is informed by 'border-straddling, imaginary citizenship' and 'the in-betweens.' How does this feature in Romeo is Not The Only Fruit?
The intertextuality between canonical texts is probably the most boundary-stripping thing in this show for me. The title is drawn from Romeo and Juliet but that’s been mashed up with Jeanette Winterson's Oranges Are Not The Only Fruit. There are also references to other popular heterosexual romances like Pride and Prejudice, but we also draw heavily from queer film and TV tropes (a genre so under-nourished that if you’ve seen even one popular queer show, you’ll catch onto the tropes really quickly).

Each song is also informed by distinct genres and the emotional trajectory most usually associated with those genres, but it’s the juxtaposition of songs that creates the whole. I think it’s this touching and inter-reaching between categories that mimics the personal journey many people like myself (non-Australian national, queer, woman-of-colour) travel—why limit yourself to only one genre (or language, or form) if that’s not the best way the experience can be represented?

What has been the most enjoyable part of creating Romeo is Not the Only Fruit?
The work I usually create usually carries very serious vibes, and can verge on didactic; it’s been really fun to create something that’s actually explicitly didactic, but delivers its comments via an absolutely hilarious Chorus. By blasting this show with humour, joy, and a team taking absolute pleasure in almost-nearly-taking-the-piss, we get to mess with the commentary, the musical theatre form, and the narrative. We get to say what we want to say, and we get to share that in the most boisterous way possible. That’s been a really fun difference for me.

It’s also incredibly cheesy, but I’m also relishing working with a team as talented as the one I’ve been lucky enough to amass. The cast are killing it on these fantastic original songs, and the production team is bringing the show to life in ways I couldn’t personally imagine. Sometimes, I think the best bit about working on Romeo is being able to be so smug about how easy it was to find all these talented people of colour.

Surprise surprise, we’re right here and we’re making good fucking shit.



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