Designing for Blaque Showgirls / by Eugyeene Teh
Designing for Nakkiah Lui’s Blaque Showgirls has been a real honour, challenge and adventure. The development process commenced many moons ago and the very excellent director, Sarah Giles and I have been having continuous design conversations. The challenge was to design something that was open enough to grow with the development of the piece—as I write this, another draft of the script is yet to be delivered.
The show is a bold political satire of racial politics—a thoroughly urgent topic in this country today. Having just worked with Sarah on Young Jean Lee’s Straight White Men at MTC, we delved mercilessly into the territory and are continuing to interrogate the patriarchy, white supremacy and gender identity. Although dissimilar, both shows are a relatively new genre in the Australian theatre scene, and it is about bloody time we got used to experiencing culturally diverse stories on stage.
The design essentially satirises those that have culturally appropriated in the past. It is not intended to make fun of the culture itself, but instead, shows the audience how ridiculous it can be, especially when the perpetrators attempt to justify their actions. As a queer, Chinese-Malaysian person (or perceived ‘other’) there are ideas I am able to contribute but there are also some things I feel that are inappropriate for me to portray, ie. designing Indigenous paintings. Nakkiah’s stage directions have always been a strong guide in this process. Ideas are constantly interrogated amongst a racially diverse creative team.
Although the show is a rollicking irreverent comedy, it still speaks vehemently of serious matters pertaining to racism. My design intentionally subverts imagery to speak of the camp Blaque Showgirls world—one defined by the selling out of culture. Two-dimensional cartoon pop images define a world that does not penetrate the surface and is merely skin-deep. It references racial insensitivities in this country, and the palette draws from the pop(ular) art of Mambo and Keith Haring to Roy Lichtenstein, Howard Arkley and Yayoi Kusama’s obsession with the humble spot (which symbolizes, amongst many things, femininity and confusion.) The Kum Den is flanked with the ubiquitous cartoon icon of Hello Kitty, which, according to comedian Margaret Cho, is one of the few Asian role models we had growing up, despite the fact that she doesn’t even have a mouth. Hopefully, the campness will allow everyone to enter the difficult conversations.
Running with Nakkiah’s tongue-in-cheek writing, the playfulness of the positive and negative space subverts the architecture of the set as it satirises the idea of whiteness in the Blaque Showgirls world. Dot paintings are redefined, perhaps by a bunch of white men, to have maximum pop impact.
The costumes, mad, contextualize the characters existing in a fantastical yet deranged world. It is an incessant extravaganza and keeps on coming at you. The legendary Chandon Connors has a penchant for fur and sequins. Molly, the Japanese sidekick, dons a cheongsam while the central figure, Ginny, gets away with everything, including a yellow tracksuit and cornrows.
This is a paradoxically bizarro world not unlike the one we live in. Logic is twisted, and the rules are defined by those in power.
— Eugyeene Teh
Set & Costume Designer for Blaque Showgirls
Photography / Jody Haines