• Looking up at the hallowed walls covered in posters of shows gone by, I see a visual history of all-white productions... (AP)Source: AP
If the Australian screen is dominated by white faces, the theatre is even more so. Candy Bowers, a mixed-race African, reveals the emotional and professional toll this takes on writers and performers of colour.
Candy Bowers

22 Feb 2017 - 12:17 PM  UPDATED 23 Feb 2017 - 12:01 PM

I create theatre, I’m a playwright and an actor. Rather than talk about whether or to what degree racism exists in theatre, I’m here – with 20 years of experiences – to state that it does. There may be thrilling successes for people of colour now and then, but these are in the minority.

And so, I am writing to give voice to how racism in the theatre world has affected my community and me. How the tokenism, barriers, and erasure festers under my skin. How bigotry twists my guts and shell shocks. How unconscious bias weighs down my heart and stifles my momentum.

My frustration has spilled over to my Twitter feed, and I will be interspersing these paragraphs with some tweets, to show the extent of how this state of affairs affects me.

My parents grew up in a place where they weren’t allowed to look white people in the eye. Apartheid South Africa took its cues from the White Australia Policy and anyone who wasn’t white-looking was treated like asecond or even third-class citizen.

My parents left this behind and settled on Wunrunjeri country (Dandenong Victoria) in 1973, before relocating to Campbelltown in Western Sydney when I was 10 years old.

I was born in 1979 on this stolen land on which sovereignty has not been ceded. I’m Xhosa (African), Chinese, South Asian, and European, and I identify as Mixed Race, First Nations South African, and Blasian.

I believe if representation were based on population percentages, talent, appeal or vision, we’d see a whole lot more colour in the industry.

Recently, my sister asked me, “How come I know more about being a straight white man than I know about myself?” It was a rhetorical question highlighting the pervasive narrative that white men are centre-stage and the rest of us are their co-stars and sidekicks. I believe if representation were based on population percentages, talent, appeal or vision, we’d see a whole lot more colour in the industry.

Last year, Screen Australia released its milestone report Seeing Ourselves: Reflections on Diversity in Australian TV Drama. Based on the data collected we know that over 80 percent of content, characters, and teams in the TV industry are made up of Anglo-Celtic people, a high number of which are men. While there is no comparable study on the demographics of the Australian stage, I’m going to take a not-so-wild guess and predict that the theatre industry will come up even worse.

Indeed, I am always shocked by the lack of diversity on stage and behind the scenes in Australia’s premiere Performing Arts Venues. Looking up at the hallowed walls covered in posters of shows gone by, I see a visual history of all-white productions, but it is the few actors of colour scattered here and there, the ones that somehow defied the odds, that grab my attention.


The lack of heroes of colour on stage has affected me to my core. Living life through the prism of the white male gaze has impacted how I feel about my body and my self worth. Respectability – the urge to be polite and supplicant in the hopes white society will reward me – still battles with the need to define myself for myself deep into my 30s.

I am stifled by the white patriarchy of the Australian stage that acts much like my uniform by the end of primary school; tight and uncomfortable, my body breaking the seams, my feet crushed into shoes I’ve long grown out of.

Recently, Melbourne’s Malthouse Theatre issued a press release for its 2017 Female Directors Program. Already running for six years, every recipient had been Caucasian, and the release stated it was time to “push it further,” specifically seeking a woman who was from a culturally and linguistically diverse background (CALD) or an Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islander (ATSI) background.

“Don’t be shy,” wrote the artistic director, as if shyness was what had been holding us back this whole time. This language triggered a series of deep pangs in my chest, reminding me that many still do not see women of colour as equal, if they see us at all. We are an add-on, an after thought. This seemingly well-intentioned call-out suggested that colour or speaking another language was something extra, as if humanity begins as a white man and through a series of additions (a splash of paint, some breasts) one might become a woman of colour.

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Unsurprisingly, less then 20 women applied. Speaking to others in my theatre community, we discussed the problematic nature of the press release. How it was simultaneously ignorant and infantalising, pushing the responsibility of our exclusion back onto us? We also agreed how dissatisfying and unproductive it would be to be for the single incoming woman of colour to work almost exclusively with white folks (the majority of whom are men).

People like to talk about racism in the arts as if it is a topic to be debated. I find that debilitating. Diversity is not about “pushing it further” with a token inclusion, or about ticking the right boxes, it is about creating the space for people to tell their stories, their own way, with people who understand where they are coming from – wherever that may be. Anything else is continuing the long history of this country’s erasure of people of colour.

And erasure feels like a forest that has no floor.

Love the story? Follow the author here: TWITTER @TheCandyBowers

Face Up To Racism #FU2Racism with a season of stories and programs challenging preconceptions around race and prejudice.

Tune in to watch Is Australia Racist? (airs on Sunday 26 February at 8.30pm), Date My Race (airs Monday 27 February at 8.30pm) and The Truth About Racism (airs Wednesday 1 March at 8.30pm).

Watch all the documentaries online after they air on SBS On Demand. 


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