Playwriting Australia promoted its new suite of 50 monologues, livestreamed over three nights this July, as “a striking moment of national celebration and reflection”. But the stories are also suffused with grief and desperation, with anxiety and impatience. Addressed as “postcards” to the nation, the monologues serve as dispatches from the pandemic, reflecting on this peculiar moment while also evincing the digitised intimacy that has become one of its signatures.
Thursday night’s program of 18 works includes some monologues that take the brief quite literally and others with a more oblique approach. Many monologues refer directly to lockdowns, and there are two in which the actor personifies the virus itself. Each playwright comes at their chosen topic in very different ways, but colonisation, racism and solidarity are recurring themes, along with a more general sense that the world is overdue for a reckoning.
Nakkiah Lui’s monologue, performed by Miranda Tapsell, opens the night and it stands out for its powerful evocation of grief, anger and endurance in the face of concurrent apocalypses that swallow each other up like so many nesting dolls. By putting the current crisis in the context of what she calls Australia’s “slow genocide” of Indigenous people, Lui forges hope from the flames: “There was no Australia. No world to lose, no utopia to save.”
For First Nations women, the apocalypse was already here. It’s part of the inheritance. “The world has ended again and again and again” – yet here you are. Later in the program, Anthony Taufa echoes this sense of lineage in Emele Ugavule’s more filmic work, a eulogy to a grandfather who lived through multiple world wars, Tonga’s independence and environmental devastation.
Another highlight is Anchuli Felicia King’s work featuring Catherine Văn-Davies as an auctioneer opening bidding on artefacts of anti-Asian abuse, such as a wall featuring the graffiti “Go home yellow dog” or a rock thrown through a Chinese Australian family’s window. By framing these items as cultural products whose authorship can be mapped to broader movements and fashions, King deftly connects racist violence with its supporting ideology.
Whose cries of “I can’t breathe” result in a state of emergency? Whose suffering is normal?
It’s an inspired and welcome interruption on the dominant narrative in Australia that characterises racism as a series of hate crimes divorced from their political intent. Both Lui and King’s monologues offer a reminder that for many of us, the violence of this particular moment operates within a familiar logic, the novel coronavirus breathing fresh life into tired racial dynamics. Dear Australia, why are you surprised?
The pandemic becomes a character in Willoh S Weiland’s work which puts Kris McQuade in a fetching pink and purple coronavirus costume by Noah Casey. Playing the flamboyant and confrontational virus, McQuade challenges humanity over its hypocrisy as we rush to attack viral infections and scapegoat racial and sexual minorities for their spread when the deadliest plague is social injustice. Taking the format of an open mic bit, the piece offers a macabre riff on the juxtaposition of respiratory illness with lethal police brutality: “Sure, I’m filling random people up with pus but your law enforcement officers are standing on throats.” It leads me to ask: whose cries of “I can’t breathe” result in a state of emergency? Whose suffering is normal? The confluence of the pandemic and Black Lives Matter protests reveals how Black trauma and state violence is taken for granted. It’s the protests that make the headlines, not police brutality. This is the kind of normal that needs to break.
Weiland’s piece is the only one in Thursday night’s series that utilises a stage setting with black drapes and a mic stand; most of the monologues are filmed face-to-camera in the actors’ homes or even cars. Low-res, close-up and unfiltered, at times the effect is uncomfortably intimate, verging on claustrophobic. Some pieces make clever use of the medium, such as Dan Giovannoni’s work with James Majoos which uses the Zoom classroom as the setting for teen connection and romance, or Morgan Rose’s piece in which actor Emily Goddard breaks the fourth wall with Fleabag-ish asides before the shot pans out to reveal a surprise. Others feel visibly constrained by the camera.
Just as here theatre making is stripped down and respun into a video format, so too countless other structures have been laid bare or refashioned in ways we had been told were impossible. The pandemic has exposed many powerful lies about work, policing, capitalism, community and care. It offers the world a kind of rupture – but it’s up to us to make the change.