Conversing in Tongues
I hate silence. Or maybe it’s just that I am afraid of it …
There is much to be said about language; at times reflecting passion or grief with precision, and at others a spasmodic sprawl of nonsensical madness, merely scratching the surface of a feeling’s true intent. While society has been well versed, bred and developed by utilising language as a precursor to existence, placing your gender, race, and status into the hands of predetermined structures, what if your internal language does not reflect the external options for conversation? You craft a new language.
That concept – a new language – is almost pornographic. Overcoming the habit of using words to converse about thoughts, feelings, impressions, facts, fears and desires is an obscenely monumental task. Faced with such a prospect we have to ask, what the fuck is acceptable? Who am I? What am I, truly, beyond my skin?
Can you hear me?
We live in an age of constant communication, where – though you are encouraged to use your voice (unless it fails to align to what society determines to be appropriate or acceptable) – an abundance of noise drowns you out. Yet being challenged with conversation is always exciting, sinking like teeth beneath the flesh, taking hold over you possessively and urging you to reply in kind. Such is the motivation of a performer in placing themselves front and centre in an attempt to communicate, hoping it penetrates through flesh, bone and blood cells, for which time is the most crucial exchange.
It was with all of this in mind that I recently embraced two separate shows, both urging a modern conversation and discussing topics long gestating yet rarely given a true platform for discussion. AMKA: Narratives from the African Diaspora (Arts Centre, Melbourne, 22-23 September 2017) is the voice of African-Australians, and Power Ballad (part of the Melbourne Fringe Festival, Arts House, North Melbourne, 23 September 2017) is the voice of feminism. Both performances discuss language that enforces a societal view upon the protagonists. Both attempt to twist, dissect and deconstruct those very narratives, which are consistently used against them.
It is fascinating that, beneath the surface, both of these shows urge you, the audience, to: ‘talk to me on my own terms’. Choked, strangled, suffocated and surrounded by noise, these voices by necessity cut language into something unique. We are, after all, told to be unique, to be ourselves, to be true to our existence.
As generic white guy A it’s almost disheartening for me to attempt writing content for shows which I feel I may never completely understand, and how could I? I am not of colour. I am not a woman. I am straight. How could I even begin to comprehend the daily struggles within these people’s lives? I am a guest in their homes. I am listening to them speak, and listening is surely the least I could offer in return.
When a woman stands there crying out beyond the stage that she has been ‘patient’, that she has been ‘waiting’ long enough, and for how much longer? (AMKA) Or when she paints her face in silver tears, screaming truths, howling feelings, ensnaring both tragedy and comedy in an expression that asks you to recognise the absurdity of a society that forces her to define herself in words as simple as ‘feminist theatre’. (Power Ballad) Is she a creature meant to strike fear into us, or merely a soul deconstructing how language exists, controls and dictates a society’s views, shouting into its absurd raw face? The conversation extends beyond these moments in time to the truth behind these personally crucial outcries, between tongues, between fingertips as if you can almost hold it. These are conversations that stretch their hands out to you, demanding to be felt. So when I ask myself, who am I to truly comprehend your suffering? Who am I to raise my voice when I am being asked to listen? I already have my answer. It is felt.
Language is equal parts beautiful and absurd. You sit on a train. Traffic passes by, with passengers all the same but different, all trying to converse and find similarities while maintaining they are ultimately unique. What is shared in suffering is language, or “just words” as Julia Croft (Power Ballad) amusingly attempts to show us. Just words, how they pierce your existence, you cunt, slut, faggot. These are all just words, right?
The cast of AMKA reflect on how a word as simple as ‘black’ does not truly define them or their colour, let alone the concept of colour offering strange and unique discussions. To relate your identity to a colour doesn’t seem to work, and nor should it, for how does a tone or pigment define your entire personality? The same intention applies to Power Ballad’s argument that individual words carry a slew of language attached as connotations to its true definition. This argument is brilliantly conveyed with the birth of sex, then the sound of birth itself, creation, and rock and roll, sculpting your subconscious to recognise, discard, and repurpose those definitions, reclaiming femininity beyond ‘power’, beyond ‘words’.
The absurd is a slip of the tongue, so to speak, at least when discussing reality. Croft moulds absurdist rhetoric to her will as she penetrates the audience with sight and sound beyond language, adding a little extra sprinkled on top to prove her point. A master of their forms, Croft (on stage) and Madhan (off stage) have weaved a hauntingly sonic piece that pulsates punk attitude deep into life, death, sex, birth, the primordial self, society, gender, bias, and ultimately language. Nothing is as poignant as giving you a chance to speak, yet nobody walks up to take the microphone, even when the karaoke box is playing. “I am alone.” The words beckon to the audience, urging them to sing along. Croft is both fact and feeling, fetishised, totemised, a vessel for communication, wearing her voice as a weapon. She is a catalyst.
In AMKA, a golden muzzle calls your attention to the voices beneath, yet each moment is ushered in by the reinforcement of the muzzle. Fetishised control, a sexy reminder that your voice – as unique as it may be – is only heard when its language is kept in line with what society deems appropriate. Sound familiar? Or perhaps you can’t hear me. Who do we speak for? As each muzzle is lifted we are reminded that it is silence we fear the most. Fear is a powerful weapon, to be used and to be overcome, regardless of how sexy the muzzle it asks us to wear is.
Power Ballad and AMKA: Narratives from the African Diaspora are two completely different conversations, but between their differences are similarities. They are threads that can be woven to understand our humanity, but they are also scissors ready to cut cloth into their own unique voices. I urge you to engage in these discussions, instantly more demanding, urgent, pivotal, and motivational than anything I could write on these topics. I am bound by words that cannot begin to command your attention in such a powerful way. Perhaps if I could touch you through these pages, then you may feel something more. The stage offers the audience more than an opportunity to connect and feel with these performers, it offers the opportunity to communicate directly, to take the time and listen to what are incredibly important yet entertaining performances, capturing the absurdity behind society now, offering a new dialogue, a new language.
I have heard you speak in tongues, but did I truly listen? While that question remains I ask you not to be convinced by my words, but rather to go and visit theirs.
AMKA images are video stills from the Arts Centre Melbourne on youtube