Notes on Diversity

A Review of Three Performances at Melbourne Fringe 2019
by Cher Tan

Neuromantic – a queer cabaret
Created and performed by Cynthia Sobraty, produced by Lia Stark.

Oh No! Satan Stole My Pineal Gland!
Directed by Jean Tong & Lou Wall. Performed by Natesha Somasundaram, Cheryl Ho, Sarah Fitzgerald, Liam Maguire & Lou Wall. Written by Kirby Medway

Created by Daisy Nduta, assistance director Lucy Ansell, performed by Tamara Bailey, Anyuop Dau, Naomi Sepiso & Daisy Nduta

Depending on who you talk to, the d-word can be either dreaded, detested, or divine. It’s a word that, when laundered through the spin-cycle of contemporary culture, has been wrung to absolute death. Individuals get a bit too trigger happy with it, its connotations lost to semantic satiation. Haters use it to sound alarm bells for the end of dominant structures, they who’re used to only reckoning with one narrative, one power. Corporations turn it into a shibboleth that make it mean as little as the changes they intend to make. We wrinkle our noses. On to the next thing, now.

When LIMINAL first discovered that geisha show at this year’s Melbourne Fringe, we felt a collective sense of dismay. It’s 2019, we thought. Surely blatant displays of cultural appropriation are no longer accepted? From the Ghost in the Shell remake to Jonah From Tonga, an ongoing assemblage of such abominations have haunted society. Not another one. Not now, when cultural discourses are more polarised than ever.

We now know the events that unfolded. Amid calls for diversity in these treacherous times, sometimes the actual meaning gets lost in the fray. After all, “freedom of speech” is more often than not still not synonymous with “freedom from persecution”—and those with less power in our still-unequal systems are frequently punished for it. Impact matters more than intention.  

And impact was the order of the game for Cynthia Sobraty in their new show NEUROMANTIC. At once a one-two-three punch of their experiences under racism, cis-sexism and neurotypicality, the cabaret performance utilises traditional styles of song and dance to retell old histories, especially when Sobraty asserts one-third into the show that “the future hasn’t happened yet”. At certain points, they interact with the audience: when they implore the 30-odd crowd (a full house in the small venue) to feed sounds into a loop machine, it lends to a therapeutic and intimate atmosphere, blurring the boundaries of performer and audience as we ourselves navigate the in-between. Like watching a diary unfold, we’re privy to Sobraty’s inner thoughts as they struggle to fit neatly into any one of society’s boxes. In one scene, they reinterpret the 80s children’s show Mister Rogers’ Neighbourhood to carve space for their child self after finding out as an adult that the actor has aired homophobic views.

More pop cultural gems come through in OH NO! SATAN STOLE MY PINEAL GLAND!, a new play directed by Jean Tong and Lou Wall, two theatre-makers known for having a track record for boundary-pushing work, such as LOU WALL’S DRAG RACE and ROMEO IS NOT THE ONLY FRUIT. The play, perfectly executed in the tiny room of the Victorian Trades’ Hall Old Council Chambers, never tells the audience what exactly is going on; we can only connect the dots as the narrative progresses. The opening scene shows Natesha Somasundaram standing on an AstroTurf cyclorama, calling out to fellow Satanists who whiz past unconcerned. She begins to ask about an episode of Gilmore Girls, only to be met with nonchalance and ignorance. The show further disappears into a satire of surrealism, as a microcosm of contemporary culture and millennial relationships come into play—we’re like, no way, haha.

This mood repeats itself in ASSILIMATION, an interactive show by Daisy Nduta and crew. The topics of migrant assimilation and liminality are addressed as performers vocally ask questions such as “I don’t know if I’m supposed to be here” and having to curate their race in how “Australia wants me to be and how I am”. Even if the general feeling is that of apathy, the reality of having to fit in is all too real, regardless of skin colour, accent, mannerisms, appearance. The show works to ask the difference between “assimilation” and “integration”, hoping that the audience has a ready answer. Photos of the cast are readily put up on picture boards, lending to a personal element. “Where am I from?” a cast member asks.

In a truly diverse world, there are different approaches. Some on-the-nose, others rife with subtext, yet more others going down a nonsensical rabbit hole. It may be artful, political, lacklustre and awful. It may be worth attention for its ethics, its artistic merits, its shock factor. Sounds obvious, but these three performances show glimmers of these and more. Like what Sobraty asks at one point in NEUROMANTIC: “Do I educate? Do I represent? Do I entertain? Or do I simply exist?” True diversity renders these questions moot.

Leah McIntosh