Salt-N-Pepa rapped ‘let’s talk about sex’ in the 1990’s, and Western Sydney artist Winnie Dunn is doing just that.
Sex, Drugs & Pork Rolls - a theatrical offering produced by Bankstown-based Urban Theatre Projects (UTP), follows the lives and loves of four diverse Western Sydney youths on one day in 2016 - the day Donald Trump is elected.
Presented as filmed monologues performed by actors including Safe Harbour star Hazem Shammas, the production features work by Sweatshop Collective writers Stephen Pham, Shirley Le and Dunn, as well as Prime Minister's literary award winning poet Omar Sakr. The production is directed by Helpmann award winning playwright S. Shakthidharan of Counting and Cracking fame.
At first blush, Dunn’s fictional character mirrors her own identity - a young mixed-race Tongan-Australian woman from Mt Druitt in Sydney’s west. On a deeper level, her character struggles with the self-loathing and low-self-esteem of an outsider on the social margins. Seeking to ascend by chasing love and affirmation in the wrong places, her character becomes vulnerable to predatory encounters.
“Her response to that self-hatred is 'I need to get out my community, I need to get out of my culture, and I need white men to do that.'
“You won't find one woman of colour who has not gone through one moment of self-hatred, which is sad and is a form of trauma. For me it was about delving into a character who is still going through that… what does that mean for a marginalised woman like that to be giving up so much and receiving so little in return?”
Dunn says the violence her character faces speaks to bigger problems in the backdrop--not only the rise of white nationalism politically--but as simple as the damage of internalising white beauty standards.
Dunn hopes the play will put Mt Druitt and Pasifika stories on the map. It’s a tough portrayal, one she expects might generate controversy, but especially important for young people caught between racism and conservative religious communities.
“Sex is taboo in my culture and how do I talk about sex in such a public way, in an artistic way without thinking 'oh my god this is going to bring such shame on my community?'
“I do use my mixed-race privilege to talk about taboo topics because I came from a specific family and extended family that will kind of just get over it. While other people don't have that opportunity or that voice and can't talk about those things safely. For me it's like, let me take the brunt of the criticism if it comes from my community because I think in the end it's worth it.
Dunn admits the violence, drugs and sexual themes of the show opens it to a critique of reaffirming stereotypes of Western Sydney, but says she felt that was countered by the production featuring an all person of colour cast and crew, with stories told sensitively by Western Sydney locals through their own lens.
Author of the Miles Franklin shortlisted novel ‘The Lebs’, Michael Mohammed Ahmad, who provided script support for production, said the all person of colour cast and crew was a "dream come-true" amid conversations on diversity and representation in arts and media. Trump was the embodiment of white mediocrity, Ahmad argues, and this was mirrored on a micro level in Western Sydney, where creatives of colour struggle to ‘work twice as hard to get half as far’ in a field dominated by the white gaze and gatekeepers.
“(The writers’ room) just feels so good. I don’t have to exhaust myself explaining obvious s*** to well meaning but ignorant white people. You are in a room where everyone gets it. I don’t need to explain what’s problematic, what’s offensive…everyone is on the same page. You can move the conversation forward. “
Sex, Drugs & Pork Rolls opens at Riverside Theatre Parramatta from 20-24 January as part of the Sydney Festival.