ON Batch Festival: Brown Skin Girl with Ayeesha Ash and Emele Ugavule

We had the great privilege of sitting down with the Co-Artistic Directors of Black Birds– Emele Ugavule and Ayeesha Ash about their new show Brown Skin Girl showing for a very limited season at Griffin Theatre as part of the Batch Festival. Have a read of the vision that these incredible trailblazers have for their company and Australia’s cultural landscape.

The language we identify with and use for ourselves holds great importance. Do you consider yourself a “brown skin girl”? What does that mean to you?

Ayeesha: Brown Skin Girl is a reference to the ways in which people who aren’t of colour try to classify and identify us. Too many times I’ve been told that I’m black or brown without any communication about how I feel about those labels or what they mean in different cultural contexts. My dad is black and my mum is brown and I identify as both black or brown. Being black or brown is more than the colour of your skin; I know people with lighter skin than me who identify as black and people with darker skin than me who identify as brown. For people who aren’t of colour or don’t understand the complexities of colourism to assume they have the right to racially categorize us –is wrong. At the same time, this type of categorisation has also been a point of connection between myself and other POC (People of Colour) artists and friends. We’re able to reclaim these labels and use them in ways that empower us, rather than ‘other’ us. You can also see this happening a lot in pop culture. There are so many songs by WOC (Women of Colour) artists in which they powerfully refer to themselves as brown skin girls, getting rid of this connotation that being black or brown isn’t beautiful or valid.

A show for, by and about Women of Colour (WOC)- People said it couldn’t be done! What’s it been like working in a room like that?

Ayeesha: Working in a room full of WOC has been a truly inspiring and empowering experience. It’s so important to us that we are telling stories that are created by, about and for people from our communities. Too often in Australian theatre WOC or POC are used as tokens; kind of like social and political pawns to give theatre companies cred and to tick the diversity box. Having a token POC as part of your team is not enough. Our capabilities as POC and WOC are often ignored or diminished because we’ve systemically been denied access to certain spaces and/or told that we’re not good enough to thrive in the same spheres as white people. Brown Skin Girl is one of many ways in which we disprove this! This show is written, directed, produced, choreographed, performed by, and featuring artwork by WOC who are all excelling in their fields. The atmosphere is electric! The synergy between the artwork, the writing, the performance, the choreography all talk to the similarities of our lived experiences as WOC in Australia and the strength in representation. With all of our projects as Black Birds, it’s important that we work with people who we can trust completely; we’re retelling deeply personal experiences, some of which we have never told anyone, and the atmosphere of the room is of utmost importance.

So far this year, Black Birds has worked in Aoteaora, Naarm (Melbourne) and Meanjin (Brisbane) – What gap does the work that Black Birds make fill within Australia’s current cultural landscape?

Emele: We create the work we want to see, and the work we want to be in. The gap is Black and Brown female bodies having autonomy over the way they are placed and viewed in white theatrical spaces. We are constantly working to make work that speaks to our lived experience whilst tapping into our traditional performance practices and Western theatrical training. It is honestly so difficult to do that because everyone in these spaces from marketing to ticket sales to your producer are usually palagi (European) people and I am constantly fighting for our right to decide how we are represented and spoken to. I’m a big believer in the idea that when you rise, you must bring your community with you so everytime we hold space I want to bring in sisters from other parts of community too and showcase them. So the thought process is – okay we are producing a theatre piece, but there’s walls in the foyer that we can fill with work by Women of Colour. Okay so we need a photographer, let’s hire a Woman of Colour. You know? I’m filling the gaps with our community in any and every way I can.

 So the thought process is – okay we are producing a theatre piece, but there’s walls in the foyer that we can fill with work by Women of Colour. Okay so we need a photographer, let’s hire a Woman of Colour. You know? I’m filling the gaps with our community in any and every way I can. — EMELE

What are some of the realities of being an independent artist that you’ve had to learn to navigate? How important is support to the work that you make (e.g. financial/community support)

Emele: When I first pitched this idea to Ayeesha I wanted audiences to step into a space completely curated and held by WOC from beginning to end, I wanted to show them that if you are of us – this is for you, and if you are not – watch and learn. But you know, I’m beginning to understand that unless your entire team is WOC and the dollar stops with you, you will never fully own that space. Black Birds is a business, but to be honest – we don’t make any money as a business because we prioritise our work, our artists, community accessibility and respecting Aboriginal protocol as Indigenous settlers. We pay artists project to project and try to save a little on the side for our next project. We are both actors, and everything I know I’ve either learnt on the job or taught myself. So because there are certain gaps in our knowledge about how to produce work, and there are two of us running this company, we are constantly fighting to be taken seriously and treated as equals.

I am also consistently engaged in this ongoing battle of accessibility to our work and trying to work out what that really means. I’ve read every handbook, protocol guidelines, suggestions, attended workshops you name it, I’ve done it because I am truly trying to turn Black Birds into a company that is known for being accessible and inclusive to our community and sis let me tell you – the easy option is to not do it. The easy option is to give into the current model of theatre spaces and works being framed as safe spaces for white, able bodied hetero cis gendered middle class stories and audiences. The easy option is not incorporating Acknowledgement of Country or paying for a Welcome to Country when it’s appropriate. The easy option is not having an Auslan interpreter or audio description. The easy option is to just allow companies to charge $30 plus for tickets to see your work leading to predominantly white audiences viewing and judging your bodies and stories. The easy option is to allow these spaces tell you how your stories will be marketed and who they want to see them and review them. But it’s not worth it.

I’ve taken a lot of hits in the past few months for just asking questions about all these things (and I would take them all over again for the women in my company because they are everything to me) and in response I constantly receive suggestions that we should be grateful to be in these spaces aka. The white saviour complex telling me how charitable they are. But what the gatekeepers of these spaces need to understand, is that when new forms and storytellers enter your spaces that means your current model of working needs to shift. If we are only being supported by the bodies that can afford to see our work, then we as a company have failed. Our job, first and foremost, is to hold safe space for our community (Artists & Audiences) by creating work where they see themselves reflected and then feel comfortable to engage in conversation with us about it. If we don’t do that, we are failing.

Don’t tell us that our people don’t go to theatre, they do! Representation really matters, and when people get to see their faces on stage and have their stories heard-the response is real!– Ayeesha

What have you, as a collective discovered from creating and devising new work (as opposed to adaptations/ or restagings of established texts)

Emele: It’s always felt more natural to build our work from the ground up together than to use some text written by someone else. I’ve never had the urge to use someone else’s words with any of our works. I’m very anti colour-blind casting and for allowing actors the opportunity to let their cultural heritage inform their work. So it’s only felt right to develop work that comes from them. I want people to feel like they can celebrate their connection to their culture, on their own terms. I would love for us to be able to commission someone to write a play for us, as well as our company continuing the model of self devised work, as well as creating dance theatre. I want Black Birds to keep shifting what people’s perception of the theatre and theatrical works looks like.

Ayeesha: Creating new works means that we can tell our stories (and the stories of our communities) on our terms. We can dissect our experiences of the here and now as well as talking with our parents or grandparents and seeing what has or hasn’t changed in the world. We work a lot with verbatim; asking our families or WOC to talk to us about their experiences and then incorporating their responses as part of our performances. We feel honoured to be able to build such strong relationships with communities around us that they trust us enough to be the vessels for the sharing of their experiences. As POC our voices, which have for too long been marginalised, are heard honestly– in the sense that there is no middleman telling us that our cultures aren’t relevant or our lived experiences aren’t valid. One of the reasons why the work that we create as Black Birds is so fulfilling is because we get to work with so many interesting and highly skilled people who are finally getting the opportunity to tell their stories. We’ve seen huge community responses to the work that we’ve created; don’t tell us that our people don’t go to theatre, they do! Representation really matters, and when people get to see their faces on stage and have their stories heard-the response is real!

This season of Brown Skin Girl has already SOLD OUT — even more reason to head to Black Birds and subscribe to their newsletter so you don’t miss out on their next show