Getting into the sticky stuff with playwright Candy Bowers
Writer and performer behind Black Honey Company, Hot Brown Honey, and new play One the Bear opens up about white supremacy in the Australian theatre industry and creating work for the next generation of young queens of colour. By Mia Abrahams
Candy Bowers is not afraid to speak up. The Australian theatre veteran has been loud in her criticism of the Australian theatre industry for its lack of representation and diversity.
Early in her career, Candy was told by more than 20 industry professionals that she “didn’t look Australian enough to get work”. So, along with her sister, Kim Busty Beatz Bowers, she founded Black Honey Company – and she now writes and creates her own plays while running theatre workshops for young people in cities and regional communities across Australia.
It’s a bold, admirable mission to take on an industry in which, in her words, “99.9% of the mainstage theatre, the resourced theatre, the theatre our tax dollars pay for, is run by white men”. Against that backdrop, she says, artists of colour can be pushed “into a compromised positions, where everything is about access to our work for people who are not from our community because we’re not surrounded by community".
It’s disheartening, but perhaps not surprising, that Candy’s activism has come at a price. “I’ve had such little availability checking for the new year, and I’m pretty damn sure it’s because I’ve been loud about white supremacy in the industry,” she says. “That’s some of the basic bias, because I could be a nasty white guy who reduces their actors or their stage management to tears, who is highly misogynistic but because that’s a familiar person or someone who is known, they keep getting work, but because I talk about white supremacy... let’s ban that person. I’m dispensable in that way. I’m already the black sheep in the space.”
The theatre industry’s reticence to represent a diversity of experiences is particularly bad in this country, she says. "The experience I have trying to pitch work in Australia compared to somewhere like the UK, where there is no bones about the universality of theatre — whereas in Australia your colour, your class, your space, really impacts what you are and aren’t allowed to do,” she says. “I’m an artist, like Nakkiah Lui, like Michelle Law, who have found the cracks in the wall, who have wiggled our way in, but you get a lot of bruises and cuts doing that.”
Candy has said previously that to increase representation in theatre and the arts, “we have to change who's invited to the table”. Now she expands emphatically on that sentiment, telling me: “we need a new table, we need a new restaurant, we need to be in a garden or a park”. Radical change is needed, she believes, because there’s simply “no good reason why women of colour shouldn’t be getting auditions.”
Drawing on her experience workshopping poetry, hip hop, music, and comedy productions with young people across Australia, Candy’s latest play One the Bear follows two best-friend-bears living in a parallel universe, and tackles the issues of cultural appropriation, representation in media, celebrity culture, body image, and the strength of female friendship.
When she was coming up with ideas for the production, Candy was under strict instructions from the young people she'd been working with in Campbeltown, she tells me. “If you do a show where I have a needle out my arm, in a garbage tip, I’ll kill you! Can it be sci-fi? Can it be fantasy?” she recalls them saying. “And I was like, absolutely! That’s my favourite – allegorical theatre.”
“I created One the Bear as a gift for the next generation of queens to show themselves to themselves, but also to intervene a little bit, to say hey – is what you’re consuming healthy for you, is it good for you? I wanted to talk about the sticky stuff.”
Ultimately, Candy wants to see the industry change, so that the young people she is working with all across Australia are given the opportunities she herself hasn't seen. “There’s a groundswell from the bottom. I feel like everything is bursting from the seams right now.” she says. “ When I go out and do drama work with these young people, these incredibly diverse kids, I say, you’re going to burst the seams open of this oppressive space that is telling us that we are not important enough, or that we are not worthy enough, or that we don’t represent enough.”
Candy leaves me with a quote, her favourite, from poet Audre Lorde: “If I didn't define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people's fantasies for me and eaten alive.”
Being an activist and creating a revolution in a stagnant industry is not without its challenges, but, as Candy says: “I want to lift as I rise. I don’t want young queens of colour to go through what I went through. I want to shift the industry to create spaces where we can thrive and be nourished."
One the Bear is showing at La Boite’s Roundhouse Theatre, Brisbane, 10–21 October.