May 17, 2022

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Zindzi Okenyo on racism in Australian theatre and honouring Saartjie Baartman in Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner

Zindzi Okenyo was in her early 20s when she first heard about Saartjie Baartman.

She came across the name in a play: Venus by Suzan-Lori Parks — and was immediately obsessed.

Baartman was a Khoisan woman from South Africa. In 1810, when she was still in her early 20s, she was taken to the UK by showman Hendrik Cesars, where she was effectively turned into a living exhibit.

Ogled and groped, and considered a monstrosity, Baartman endured horrific abuse over her lifetime.

“She’s been a very prominent figure within the African community because she was a woman who was taken from her tribe and paraded around Britain,” Okenyo told ABC RN’s The Stage Show.

A successful actor and musician, Okenyo began her career at a time when there were few people who looked like her in the industry.

Now, as she steps into a new phase of her creative practice, directing theatre, Saartjie Baartman is once again on her mind.

Two women in bikinis apply suntan lotion and chat. They're on stage, and the lights are hot pink.
Justin Clarke described Orange Thrower as a “stellar debut; a diverse piece of surreal storytelling” in Theatre Thoughts. (Supplied: Griffin/Brett Boardman)

Okenyo has two productions currently on Australian stages: Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner, by British playwright Jasmine Lee-Jones, at Brisbane’s La Boite until March 19 (after Sydney seasons in 2021 and January 2022), followed by Melbourne’s Malthouse in July; and Orange Thrower, by Australian actor-turned-playwright Kirsty Marillier, at Sydney’s Griffin Theatre Company until March 26, followed by Riverside Theatres in Parramatta.

Both are written by black women, and feature young, black women or women of mixed race growing up in predominantly white communities.

The plays confront and explore questions of identity, racism, sexuality and class from the perspective of the African diaspora.

These are questions that Okenyo herself is no stranger to. She’s seen them play out in the rehearsal room, and rapped about them in her music.

And in considering these issues and questions, she has often thought of Saartjie Baartman.

One actor kneels beside another who is lying on her back in a room on a stage. The kneeling actor is gesticulating in distress.
Seven Methods is “deliciously high-octane” wrote Debbie Zhou in The Guardian.(Supplied: DTC/Teniola Komolafe)

In the video for her 2020 song Anthropology, a statue-like Okenyo is unpacked and put on display for a white audience. Stripped of her humanity, she is reduced to an artefact in a museum setting.

“The video’s concept and the song were a way for me to express the feeling of being watched all the time and being kind of dissected and pulled apart, which I know is not an unfamiliar internal feeling for a lot of black and brown people in this country,” she says.

Quote unquote diversity

When she was 26 years old, Okenyo googled “What does it mean to be black and feel white?”

“I really saw my blackness through the eyes of white people, and [I found] that actually, people had so much to say about who I was and what I represented. And I felt really powerless,” she recalls.

Through her music, Okenyo found she could embrace her queerness. She went from “really struggling to put the female pronouns in the songs I was writing about love,” to creating tracks like Buckle Up in which she is openly, joyfully herself.

Making that journey has meant being visible even when she didn’t feel safe.

“I experienced a lot of homophobia and also internalised homophobia, early on in my 20s. …And the reality is I don’t necessarily have many people to connect with or look up to, but [I was determined] I’m going to push through for myself.”

A woman stands in front of a bright orange wall, framed by blue printed curtains. She is wearing a green shirt and a beret.
“I put up a lot of masks in order to survive,” says Okenyo.(ABC Arts: Daniel Boud)

Okenyo says she has also felt at ease on ABC TV’s Play School, where she has been a host for 10 years.

“That’s [been] a space for me to be very genuine, very authentic and, of course, childlike, which is something that we lose as adults for lots of obvious reasons.

Although she loves the theatre, her experiences there have sometimes left her feeling isolated.

Okenyo graduated from National Institute of Dramatic Art (NIDA) in 2006, and has since performed in productions by Sydney Theatre Company (STC), where she was part of the Residents Company from 2009 to 2011, Melbourne Theatre Company, Belvoir, Griffin and Ensemble among others.

“Everybody is talking about quote unquote diversity now. Those conversations were not happening at all [when I was starting out as an actor],” says Okenyo.

When Black Lives Matter really burst into the headlines with the death of George Floyd in 2020, it brought up deeply buried feelings.

“I realised for myself that I hadn’t acknowledged so much of the racism that I’d experienced over the years. There’s a lot of casual racism in Australia and microaggressions, and of course, with that type of racism, it’s more subtle, it just kind of builds and festers a little bit.”

A woman sits with a hand draped on her knee in front of a deep maroon velvet backdrop. She wears a green beret & printed shirt.
“[Rap] is poetry. You can be really free, you can make up words, it’s all about rhythm and rhyme,” says Okenyo. (ABC Arts: Daniel Boud)

“I’ve had a bit of a backwards experience, like looking back and going, ‘Oh, yeah, that was really bad’ … because I was the only one, I literally didn’t have anybody to talk to about the things that I was feeling. So it makes sense that I pushed them down.”

Over a decade later, Okenyo feels like there’s space opening up to process everything she’s been through.

“I’m experiencing what I needed to feel in my 20s, just later on. And you know what, it’s hard.

Culture is not a costume

These complex questions of grief and belonging are central to Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner.

Jasmine Lee-Jones’s play was read by Shari Sebbens, a Bardi, Jabirr Jabirr actor and director, when she was appointed the STC Richard Wherrett Fellowship in 2019.

She brought it to Green Door Theatre Company (an independent, Sydney-based outfit run by Leila Enright and Bernadette Fam), and was due to direct their production of it in Belvoir’s downstairs theatre in November 2020 — until it was scuppered due to COVID.

The show found a new berth in Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s 2021 mainstage season, and Okenyo came on as co-director. 

Two women on stage in a small bedroom: one sits on the bed and the other stands, smiling, her back to her friend.
Though Okenyo and Sebbens are “different kinds of Black living in Australia,” Okenyo sees “many parallels and crossovers”. (Supplied: DTC/Teniola Komolafe)

Seven Methods follows the story of two friends, Cleo (played by Moreblessing Maturure) and Kara (played by Iolanthe in the current season). It opens with Cleo incensed by a tweet from Forbes celebrating Kylie Jenner as “the youngest self-made billionaire ever“.

The play jumps between Cleo’s experiences IRL (in real life) and on Twitter, where she systematically unpacks Jenner’s privilege through an anonymous account.

Her incendiary thread convincingly argues that Jenner’s empire is built on the exploitation of black women.

Two women stand under a large square-shaped screen on a stage. Tweets are projected on the screen.
Acronyms like DPMO, DSTRKT and OMDS in Cleo’s tweets are explained in an online glossary. (Supplied: DTC/Teniola Komolafe)

Jenner and her sisters Kylie, Kim, Kourtney and Khloé are Armenian, but as Cleo points out, they choose to darken their skin, wear African hairstyles including braids, and have bottom and lip implants to imitate a certain body type.

Okenyo says: “They’ve absolutely started a culture [where] you can look anywhere on Instagram and see that kind of body shape.

In her play, Lee-Jones draws a parallel between contemporary exploitation of black culture and Saartjie Baartman.

The historical parallels are uncanny, and include the 19th century English fashion of the bustle — a style of dress with heavy padding that accentuated the bottom — which is thought to have developed in response to Baartman.

Baartman in the house

An artwork featuring an image of Baartman is touring with Green Door’s production of Seven Methods of Killing Kylie Jenner. It was conceptualised by Effie Nkrumah (the show’s lead consultant for community engagement at Darlinghurst Theatre) and the creative agency 2 Sydney Stylists (Niwa Mburuja and Wanyika Mshila) in collaboration with audio-visual designer Wendy Yu.

A projected image features a Black woman against a bright yellow screen. A QR code is placed alongside her face.
A QR code on the artwork featuring Baartman takes you to a poem on the Seven Methods site. (Supplied: Effie Nkrumah)

In the artwork, Baartman’s face is juxtaposed with faces of successful contemporary black women.

“We’re talking about people like Serena Williams or Michelle Obama, sharing space in this visual way with Saartjie Baartman because of the things that they have also been similarly subjected to within their capacity and even within their excellence as black women,” Mburuja explains.

Nkrumah adds: “We were not interested in repeating the spectacle or playing into black trauma. Instead we chose to honour her memory by placing her in tandem with other black women in the diaspora and from the continent who have faced similar policing, albeit in different, less outrageous ways, and used words through poetry to uplift and encourage.”

A group of people sit in a small recess which is painted bright orange and filled with cushions and paintings with ethnic prints
“We wanted to see ourselves in places that we didn’t see when we were growing up,” says Niwa Mburuja of 2 Sydney Stylists.(Supplied: Griffin/Kobla Photography)

2 Sydney Stylists were part of the original team who helped design a community engagement strategy, which included Vyb Nights (featuring DJs and live performances by black artists) and a dedicated selfie spot — with a backdrop in colours chosen to make melanin pop.

The community engagement efforts in Sydney also included a series of conversations led by black community and industry experts, a writing masterclass with Lee-Jones, and the opportunity for emerging black creatives to observe the rehearsal room.

Food was key to creating a sense of welcome – you could buy plantain chips, jollof rice and condensed milk toffees in the theatre – and all the tables were covered with African wax-print fabric.

The community engagement strategy has evolved and grown since it was first rolled out in 2021, and now also includes a website that offers a glossary, a reading list, playlists and poetry.

Creating an expansive space

One woman squats on stage, she is wearing a turban and a hopeful expression. Another stands behind, listening.
Kara and Cleo praise Baartman for being a model of Black beauty – even when she didn’t choose to be.(Supplied: DTC/Teniola Komolafe )

African artists, creatives and thinkers have been front and centre throughout the process of staging Seven Methods.

Community engagement consultant Effie Nkrumah compares the process to planting seeds.

“There are some seeds that go onto the ground, and they stay there for years, like bamboo. But once it’s time for it to break out, it doesn’t stop growing until it’s reached its fullest potential, right?”

As interest in work by black creatives has grown in Britain and America, corresponding space has opened up in Australia, she says — and it’s the opportunity many have been waiting for.

“You’re not training actors, you’re not training stage managers, you’re not training community engagement specialists or stylists or DJs … everybody’s there and ready, we’ve been ready for a long time.”

Okenyo has noticed the uptick in work centring the experiences of the African diaspora.

In 2022, Sydney has already seen productions of new Australian works Black Brass (by Perth’s Mararo Wangai) and Orange Thrower, Seven Methods, and British writer Michaela Coel’s 2013 play Chewing Gum Dreams.

This last was also produced by Green Door.

“[Green Door] were the first to actually foster the work, and so I think that the company is the real beating heart behind this movement,” says Okenyo.

She has been thrilled with how audiences have responded to the productions and the community-building efforts around them.

One woman sits on a bench, watching another woman dance wildly. The whole scene on the stage is bathed in purple light.
“There wasn’t much of a conversation about my heritage and my culture growing up,” says Okenyo.(Supplied: DTC/Teniola Komolafe)

“It was just so incredible to put it into practice … [and see] black and brown people coming to the shows were feeling exactly the same as us and really, really appreciated that safe space and open space,” says Okenyo.

“You can just see the relief in people’s bodies, that joy, people networking, all of that stuff. And so we’re just kind of taking it upon ourselves to create that space that nobody’s gonna create for us.”

She hopes this will encourage some of the more established theatres to make bolder choices in their programming.

“There is a push and things are changing. However, it feels tentative, I think, from some of the major companies.

A new chapter with Orange Thrower

Okenyo is bringing these community building strategies to Orange Thrower, which marks her first solo outing as a director.

Kirsty Marillier’s script, which won the Rodney Seaborn Playwrights Award, is a sharp, exuberantly funny coming of age story. The play is a co-production between Griffin Theatre Company and National Theatre of Parramatta. 

Two smiling women stand back to back, smiling at the camera. One in an orange shirt and bun, the other has long hair in braids.
Marillier (left) says she wanted to write a role about “a big, meaty, complex, flawed woman”.(Supplied: Griffin/Brett Boardman)

Set in the suburban sprawl of Paradise, an upmarket housing estate, the action centres around the Peterson family: South Africans who have settled in Australia, where they don’t quite blend in with their predominantly white neighbourhood.

Things seem to come to a head when teen Zadie is left in charge of the house and her younger sister, Vimsy, while their parents are on a trip to Johannesburg. Zadie struggles to keep up appearances as someone starts throwing oranges at their home, Vimsy acts up — and Stekkie, their cousin from South Africa, reappears unexpectedly in their lives.

Stekkie is loud and unabashedly herself. To Zadie, Stekkie embodies “everything uncontrollable in the world”.

On stage, a girl with long hair squints through a pair of binoculars. The lenses are rimmed in hot pink.
After so many rehearsals on Zoom, the cast coming together was “just such joy,” says Okenyo.(Supplied: Griffin/Brett Boardman)

In her playwright’s note, Marillier says she based Paradise on “the drabbest parts of white Australia, areas I was raised in from the years 2000-2010 after emigrating from [South Africa].”

Okenyo first encountered the script in 2019 when she played the role of Stekkie in a development at Sydney Theatre Company. She recalls having a visceral response to the character, and would later write that “living inside Stekkie’s brain was strange and wild, I felt untamed and bound — frightened and yet somehow without fear.”

Okenyo suspects audiences identifying as part of the African diaspora will identify with Zadie and Stekkie and empathise with their predicament.

Two girls are crouched facing each other on a stage. They're having a heated conversation.
Orange Thrower was developed through Griffin Studio and Sydney Theatre Company’s Rough Draft program.(Supplied: Griffin/Brett Boardman)

“This play is so much about being coloured and South African and being an immigrant to Australia, which is Kirsty Marillier’s experience — but also in a wider lens it’s about the experience for anybody who is mixed African growing up in Australia, and how isolating that can be.”

After watching the show, a man in the audience said the play had made him think about his own journey. In a vox pop captured by Griffin, he says: “You come to Australia or a new country, and you think ‘I’ve got to assimilate, to do right.’

“I can relate a lot to it and my friends who have been here, the way we’ve compromised ourselves, like Zadie’s character? All we have put in: ‘Don’t say that, use your good English voice’ … it’s like [seeing] all those things just made me feel really amazing, but also funny,” he says.

Okenyo was aiming to stir that kind of empathy – and not just among those who identified as black.

Conversations about lightie-itus

Both Orange Thrower and Seven Methods deal directly with how racism is internalised, and how it plays out within the African diaspora.

Early in Seven Methods, Kara and Cleo begin arguing about what Cleo dubs “lightie-itus”, as she insists that Kara’s lighter skin tone and straighter hair mean she has experienced less direct racism.

“The only reason why that kind of rhetoric exists is because it is actually true in the world,” says Okenyo.

Okenyo has begun to interrogate her own experience through this lens.