There are many ways to assess theatre.
Whatever metrics one chooses to do so represent a value judgement. It’s a choice as to the most important dimensions of the piece of theatre in question.
Sometimes, that’s technical skill. Others, it’s ambition. Sometimes, it’s storytelling. It changes with every piece of theatre being assessed – you can’t assess a fish by its ability to climb a tree, to use a popular axiom.
All of which is to say: There’s a great deal about The Sui Ensemble’s La Silhouette that I will not be discussing. I have made a choice that it is not relevant. I have made that choice because I was not so much an audient of La Silhouette as a victim of its profound insensitivity.
And, I feel, if I had seen someone else subject to what I was subject to, I’d like to think I’d feel compelled to prioritise their experience. I wouldn’t write about the acting or the choreography or design (all of which ranged from serviceable to outstanding). I’d write about the hurt.
I want to be clear on that final point. When we discuss works that fail to meet a certain ethical standard, we often discuss them in the context of some objective standard. We frame it from a remove. I will not be doing that. This work made it harder for me to go outside the next day.
We will be talking about the hurt.
La Silhouette is ostensibly an immersive performance work about queer venues and the important role they’ve played throughout history in providing refuge and solace for marginalised populations. Throughout, audiences are toured all over the club and experience all manner of stories.
The central recurring theme of the piece seems to be compassion. This, along with the work’s larger context of appearing in a queer performance festival and explicit preoccupation with marginalised communities, is why its insensitivity and hurt is the framework of this critique.
La Silhouette establishes a standard for moral behaviour that it in no way meets – and does so in a very specific context wherein that standard is often crucial for the continued survival of both individuals and communities.
To outline the specific manifestations of that failing, we’ll require an understanding of my context.
I am a transgender woman. I have been transitioning for approximately 24 months. I am privileged, in terms of my position in society. In several ways. But, by the same token, I live in a world where I’m more likely to be raped, murdered and/or homeless.
To put it into context, the popular statistic around violence against all women is 1 in 5. 1 in 5 women have experienced some manner of violence or sexual assault from the age of 15. For transgender people (men, women and beyond), that statistic is closer to 1 in 2.
(For the purposes of this discussion, it’s also important to note that these statistics are profoundly more dire for transgender individuals who are not white. And, to a broader context, queer individuals who are not white.)
My personal experience of discrimination is comparatively minor. I’ve had members of my extended family not want to be seen with me. And, I’ve had a man masturbate at me in a public toilet. Otherwise, I lead a surprisingly blessed life.
But, marginalisation manifests in odd ways. I went to a stand-up comedy event. I found myself invisible to comedians. As a 6’1”, 130kg transgender redhead, I’m rarely invisible to anyone. But, even in being loud and heckling, I saw the fear and uncertainty.
How do we interact with this person?
Upon entering La Silhouette, I vaguely wondered if I was experiencing something similar. At first, it feels like a type of paranoid over-sensitivity. The garrulous, gregarious drag queen who fusses over every member of the crowd of attendees just coincidentally glides through our interaction.
It happens again. The fictitious ‘owner’ of La Silhouette. Charm and patter all around. A disquieting blank glide for me. An in-story jab of ‘what did I just say, mate?’, pointed in my direction, raises the suspicions just a little further.
…He didn’t call any of the other women ‘mate’…
A drink at the in-performance bar. A Brisbane Powerhouse bartender twice addresses me as ‘sir’. I keep waiting for the work to say the word ‘trans’. I remember the ‘owner’ saying ‘we welcome everyone – boys and girls’. I keep looking for something that says people like me are welcome here.
A scene arrives, channelling the riots at the Stonewall Inn. The arguable foundation of the global Pride Movement. Riots led by transgender people of colour. There are none to be seen. I’m waiting for race to be discussed.
A 911 call is played. A recording of a 911 call from the night of the Pulse Nightclub shooting. A shooting wherein most victims were queer people of Hispanic descent. I wait for race to be discussed. I wait for gender to be discussed.
The work ends.
In the programme notes, the director says the initial inspiration for the work came from Stonewall. But, the ensemble realised they weren’t the people to tell that story. Reading the notes after the performance, it reads like a list of apologies and excuses.
La Silhouette is thoughtless. It picks up ideas and experiences and uses them without thought for the ramifications of that usage. Even the work’s basic mechanics, themes and historical references feel cribbed from better Brisbane theatre works like Prehistoric, Underground or Room 328.
But, in its thoughtlessness, La Silhouette is cruel. It creates a work celebrating the queer community that excludes transgender people from the narrative in a time wherein there are movements in US, UK and Brisbane seeking to deny transgender people’s right to refuge within the queer community.
It speaks of police corruption and abuse at a time wherein Indigenous deaths in custody are reaching their peak with only a token acknowledgement of Indigenous people’s existence. It steals the deaths and trauma of marginalised Hispanic people for entertainment.
La Silhouette positions itself as a magical place wherein all are welcome. But, it isn’t. It quietly excludes and denies the vulnerable and marginalised while leveraging their words, experiences and stories for its own titillation.
And, to reiterate: we are not discussing this at a critical remove.
Please do not make the mistake of thinking that the consequence of this work’s insensitivities are simply rhetoric. The consequences of this work will not be seen in this or any other review. You’ll see it in different ways.
A tall, heavy transgender woman trying to convince herself that it’s okay to go to the pool, for example.
A woman practicing her voice harder so people don’t think she’s a freak.
A woman looking at a gay club and wondering if it’s safe for her to go inside.
Me – rethinking whether I should go outside today.
Me – trying to fight just a little bit harder to live a normal life.
That’s the metric for this review.
MJ O’Neill saw La Silhouette at Brisbane Powerhouse on Saturday 29 June as part of MELT Festival 2019.
There are many ways to assess theatre.