When I moved back to Sydney, one the first things I did was search for any shows, films, poetry slams, book clubs run by womxn of colour. FInally, after some months of searching, I stumbled upon Black Birds Creative Arts. Co. Founded in 2015, the theatre company aims to spark a conversation with it’s intersectional, interdisciplinary and intercultural work highlighting the works of womxn of colour in Australia. After some proper stalking I found that they’d be staging another run of their show, Brown Skin Girl, and I just knew I had to meet them. I finally plucked up the courage to get in touch and had the most fascinating, inspiring and hilarious conversation with co-founder of Black Birds, Ayeesha Ash, and Black Birds collaborator and actress, Emily Havea. We talked all things theatre, growing up brown and Australian, Ariana Grande’s very catchy single and the importance of womxn of colour knowing they are enough.
I arrived at a chic cafe before Ayeesha and Emily so I could go over my notes before they arrived, but when they did, the notes went out the window and we just spoke as if we’ve known each other for years …
Michel’le: So, I’m sure you’ve answered this question so many times before, but how did Black Birds come about, what was the idea behind it and the inspiration?
Ayeesha: Yeah so another lady, her name is Emele Ugavule, whose not here today, we founded it together in 2015 I think it was. So Emele actually went to NIDA), same year as Emily …
Emily: … yeah so we studied together …
Ayeesha Yeah, and I went to WAAPA in Perth, like acting school in Perth, and we kind of met up after we both graduated and we were talking about how there was not really a lot of work for women of colour in the Australian industry. Not only that, but the work that is there is like super tokenised and has nothing to do with who you are as a woman of colour but rather to put you there just to tick a box, which just makes you feel like crap. So, we were like, we should change that. So that’s how it started and it’s just taken off from there and we’ve worked with Emily now, this is our third time,
Ayeesha: And we try and collaborate with different people for each project, obviously this is an ongoing project so we work with the same people, and the other woman involved, Angela, she went to NIDA as well …
Emily: … two years below me, we were housemates for like two years as well.
Ayeesha: Yeah, yeah. And I mean, what you (Mich) were saying about the industry as well about trying to look for other women of colour creatives, there are so many around but who have just had a lack of opportunities so people kind of just retreat in to themselves so now that we’ve started to make this work people are just popping up. Not like they’re popping up like they’ve been lost, but they’ve just kind of lost so much confidence or just been dejected by the whole industry so no one kind of tries anymore. There’s like a lot of people in different fields as well who we’re starting to work with and connect with, which I think is really great.
Emily: Yeah, and what’s so awesome about the company, because I’m part of this show but not necessarily in the structure of the company, and I think what’s so great about Em and Ayeesha is they’ve been all over the country, I mean as far as an independent budget can go, you know what I mean. So they’ve worked in Melbourne a bunch of times and Brisbane …
Ayeesha: … we went to New Zealand this year, which was awesome …
Emily: Yeah and Sydney and all across the West, like they have a real drive to like not just be in the Eastern Suburbs of Sydney, which is such an insular hub. And it’s great in some ways but also is a manly Caucasian, insular hub so (laughs).
Mich: Ah alright and when you started out what do you feel like the response was from such a heavily Caucasian influenced industry, did you feel there was a sense of “oh, what are these women trying to do?
Emily: (Laughs) I was in uh, after a show, another show that I was doing with uh The Griffin Theatre and I was in the foyer talking about the show to this old white woman bless her (laughs) and I was telling her like “Oh yeah, it’s a show I’ve written with two other women of colour about being a woman of colour in Australia and that experience” and she’s like “Oh, it’s so funny isn’t it, we all wanna be darker and you all wanna be lighter.”
Awkward laughs across the table
Mich: (Gasp) She said that to your face?
Ayeesha: Like wow, no, that’s not what we want.
Emily: I was like yeah; no that’s not what I want. That is not what I want.
Emily: So yeah, maybe there’s like this lack of understanding around what the hell is happening …
Ayeesha: … like why we’re doing it.
Emily: Yeah, and I found like, something amazing that happened the first time we did the show was a really close friend of mine. He’s like the epitome of an Aryan male, like not, not personality wise but looks wise. He’s tall, blonde, strong jaw, like as an image; you’re like that is what an Aryan person looks like. So he came up to me after the show and was like: “Em, I felt so moved, like it’s my problem, like I need to do something about it”.
Ayeesha: Yes, and that’s amazing, that’s what we want. I remember talking about this during the first development of the show, that we want the work to be inclusive not exclusive. And yes, we’re talking about issues we face as women of colour but we don’t want it just to be like …
Emily: … this is what it’s like …
Ayeesha: …that’s not going to make any change and it just creates more hatred and it’s like …
Emily: … polarising of like experiences and you know at the end of the day we’re all just people and if there’s a way we can share our experiences in a way that lets you in and so you can empathise and be moved to cause change yourself from whatever platform you stand on.
Mich: And do you feel like, okay this friend says he’s moved and wants to be part of the change, but was there a part of you that was like, okay you can be but I’m aware that you’re a white male and it’s not about you? Like, I know with MOXIE my dad was saying it’s excluding like white people and men. And I was like, well I don’t want to apologise for that, it’s time for our voices you know and if white straight men want to read it, go ahead but also know we don’t need your opinions and we don’t need your approval.
Ayeesha: Yeah I mean that’s why we don’t invite reviewers to our show …
Mich: Oh, really?
Ayeesha: Yeah, because like, what are they going to review?
Emily: And they’re also the worst.
Ayeesha: Yeah, and like they don’t know what we’re talking about …
Emily: This is not your experience.
Ayeesha: Yeah, it’s not like Summer of the Seventeeth Doll
Emily: (Laughs loudly).
[Full disclosure, I laughed as well, but had to Google what this was. Apparently, it’s an Australian play from 1955, no idea what it’s about but definitely no women of colour].
Emily: We’re not asking for your opinion.
Ayeesha: No, we’re not. Like come and enjoy the show. If you don’t like it, great you don’t need to like it. If you do like it, awesome, like have an opinion but we don’t care about you writing about it in the Sydney Morning Herald, because I think as well, for so long our voices have been marginalised and even plays that do have women of colour in them, usually it’s written by a white man so why, like what’s the point. Yeah, so we’ve all kind of developed thick skins as well. We know what we want and what we want to say and the women of colour who come see the show, they’re really connecting with it, which shows that we’re doing the right thing.
Emily: Yeah, it’s so incredible. Like, I think it was the last night or the second last night of the show at Batch Festival and Em and Ayeesha got in touch with Sisters of New Zealand and invited them and like 20 or 50 women of colour came, like all the front rows were filled with more dark faces than I’ve seen in a really long time and like I’m sure the show went on for an extra five minutes. We were all just like Aaah! Aaah! (Laughs). It was just so joyful and we did a Q&A afterwards – so we do like a 15 minute Q&A straight after every show ends we just sit down on some chairs and we’re like “okay, let’s all decompress together” – because it’s a lot. Like we jam pack about 45 minutes of some content. We go from like intense wailing emotions to, hey stereotypes riiiight? We just mix it up a bit and it was just so awesome to hear from people and to create a space for people to talk about the show or just ask a question. (To Ayeesha) remember that one night (laughs), that one night, we had a much more white audience and like you can feel the difference …
Ayeesha: … yeah.
Emily: And one guy was like: “Yeah so, uhm, I noticed a lot of the crowd here is white, so like does it make more of a difference if there are more coloured people in the audience and we were like …
Emily and Ayeesha: Yes!
Mich: Oh my gahd. Also, did he really say coloured?
Ayeesha: Yeah, people do say that.
Mich: Uh, whaaat?
Ayeesha: Yeah, and also like “can you just not ask a question?”
Mich: Like why is he speaking?
Ayeesha: Yeah, also, just when you asked, did he say ‘coloured’. This lady at my work, just a little tangent …
Emily: Love a little tangent …
Ayeesha: … she was like: “Ah, my Jordan’s a singer”. And I asked her, oh what kind of music does she perform? And she said: “Oh you know soul, R&B, anything, pardon my French, black”.
– And I was like, what?
Emily: Uhm that’s not French, that’s offensive.
Ayeesha: I was so confused by the whole thing; I just had to step away.
Emily: … and like to your face?
Ayeesha: Yeah …
Mich: And in those moments, how do you, how do you take yourself out of the situation? It’s something I talk about with my friends as well. Like how do take yourself out of that moment and just make sure you’re okay?
Emily: I think just chat. Like with other people with similar experiences really. Uhm, cos I found that sometimes I would retell a story, like I’ve got a lot of white gay male friends, love them to pieces, love them. But, there is a level there when I tell them those stories and it’s often met with “oh, okay”. So I think for me, yeah, finding other women with a similar experience is really helpful.
Mich: Yeah, like finding that community and support network.
Emily: Like the first meetings for this show it’s just pretty much, it’s us like retelling stories (laughs) …
Ayeesha: … about things that have recently happened to us …
Emily: and we’re all like, oh my god, how can we put this in the show? Or just listening to these stories and saying, that’s fuuucked.
Brown Skin Girl cast
Mich: So you sort of refresh the show as you go along?
Emily: Yeah, it updates with us, because it’s our stories. It’s like spoken word poetry, movement, storytelling. I think the shows success comes from us, actually, as people and how we work together and we’ve done a pretty good job I think of putting the story, out stories, together and how our experiences kind of compliment each others.
Ayeesha: We do want to talk more about dating. Like I guess we do talk about the exotification we face by white men. Uhm, but, it’s really coming to light recently, I’m sure you’ve experienced it. I don’t know what it is, I think it’s the rise of like hip hop culture, so white men like all of a sudden feel brown is …
Emily: Cool, we’re so cool. I’m just a real life human being.
Mich: Yeah, I remember the first time I was called exotic in Australia. I was 17 and at some party and I thought it was really weird. Like I was thinking, what are you trying to say? It was one of the first times I felt I was being looked at through this kind of lens. It was really interesting. I was just thinking, you’d describe an animal as exotic you know – am I a Lima?
Emily: Totally, it’s so funny. I’m really interested to see how it will play out on stage.
Mich: And then just going back to your point earlier Ayeesha, about the fact that there are roles or plays which include women of colour but these are usually written by white men. At what point did you realise, oh that’s fucked up? Like you know, growing up you think that’s the norm. I mean, I loved the film The Colour Purple growing up you know, and then kind of was like “Oh Steven Spielberg directed it? Hmmkay”. So at what point were you both like, okay I want to make a change?
Emily: I’ve just had some frustrating experiences that has left me discontent and that’s made me think I’m never going to work in stuff I don’t believe in again or in stuff that doesn’t see me as more than just …
Mich: … a brown woman.
Ayeesha: I think, like for me, everyone in our show is mixed race. And I think for me, growing up, and I’m an only child, I just never fit in fully anywhere because I was just such an amalgamation of cultures and like where I lived and went to school and so I just went everywhere and made friends with everyone and kind of just did my own thing. But when I went to see things where there were black women, on the rare occasion, on stage or screen, there just wouldn’t be anything close to my experience at all. And I think it’s because it’d always be an American experience, like a Black American experience, which we’d see, and like I can relate to Black culture of course but that experience is not mine at all. Like I didn’t grow up in the hood, and I don’t know what it’s like going to an all-Black university. So like all that kind of stuff that carried on to Australian screens, I couldn’t relate to that at all. And I can’t think of any big women of colour actors in Australia who aren’t Indigenous. And so I’ve never seen our experience on screen.
Emily: Yep, absolutely.
Ayeesha: And I’ve never seen it. There was nothing I can relate to.
Emily: When I was in second year drama school I was having a bit of a ‘mid-drama school crisis’ and I was feeling like I don’t belong here, there’s no place for me. So I Googled, I was like, it was so broad. I was like: “Brown, female, actor, Australia”. And a list of 25 white women with brunette hair came up and then Deborah Mailman and I was like, okay so I’m not Deborah Mailman and I’m not Nicole Kidman – so I just don’t know, I just don’t know.
Ayeesha: Is there room?
Emily: Is there room?
Mich: Well, I guess that’s what you’re creating now, that space, which is awesome.
Emily: Yeah, Emele said to a table of us actually, at a Brown Skin Girls debrief. She said: if you can’t see the role model for us, then they’re sitting here at this table. And I was like, fuck, we’ve gotta be our own role model.
Ayeesha: Yep, be your own stage mum.
Emily: (Laughs) be your own stage mum!
Ayeesha: My mum was never a stage mum. She was like, what time is class? Which leotard? The other mums would be in the back of class like repeating the routine.
Mich: Yeah, I think for myself, especially being in the creative field and being from an old school South African family, my dad’s like: “How’s that fun project going? You’re still at uni right?” But I guess it’s because they don’t see a huge amount of successful people of colour in the creative space …
Emily: Exactly …
Mich: And he’s like unless I go to America there’s just no point. But I’m also like, I don’t really feel comfortable going to America right now soooo … let’s create our own spaces. (Laughs) Now you’ve both described yourselves as Australian, how do you reconcile being Australian and brown?
Ayeesha: Hmmm, it’s difficult.
Emily: Yeah, it is difficult. I mean I grew up in Bendigo, which is like, a medium sized country town in Western Victoria, so like, I feel Australian as fuck. And we’ve always talked about like coming up against people saying like: “When did you get here?”
Ayeesha: (Argh) Where are you from?
Emily: Yeah, where are from. And it seems so well intentioned but so, insidiously saying like, why are you here?
Mich: Why are you brown? That’s what they want to know
Emily: Yeah, like it matters?
Ayeesha: People tell me I have an English accent. They tell me, you’re from London because you’ve got an English accent. And I’m like, no I don’t. Like people can’t comprehend that I was raised here.
Emily: That is crazy.
Ayeesha: I mean, I was born overseas. I was born in Grenada, in the Caribbean but like, my mum’s from here, born and raised. But I moved here when I was six weeks old, right, a baby, so it’s not like I came from the Caribbean with a Grenadian accent.
Mich: Right. Have you been back?
Ayeesha: Yes, once. It was amazing. Really strange because I was like: Yay, I’m going to fit in somewhere and then everyone was like: “Where are you from?” …
Ayeesha: I’m from here!
Emily: That is the epitome of the experience of a third-culture kid. Like someone caught in between cultures and I think it’s just so awesome when you find more because I think that experience is so shared and I think there’s a whole generation of third-culture kids coming up with a voice and that’s like what we’re tapping into I think.
Ayeesha and Emily
Mich: Yeah, and of course something like cultural erasure is a real thing. So are these kind of the themes you both look at with your work? In the company or elsewhere?
Ayeesha: Yeah, so this play I guess talks about our own experiences growing up. I guess, we’re all very different, we all come from different backgrounds, and grew up in different places but we’ve had very shared experiences growing up that we talk about a lot. Other work that we do, the work that we’re doing in April, called Exhale. It’s more about our grandparents and intergenerational trauma, it sounds really heavy but it’s not …
Emily: … but it also is …
Ayeesha: (laughs) it is but we’ve put some disco tracks to it. So yeah it’s about intergenerational trauma and our grandparents and what they’ve gone through to get us where we are and also how we’re disconnected from our culture because we don’t live on our lands anymore. And then we have other shows that are, I guess, looking at our identity as; it’s difficult to explain. Looking at our identity as women of colour together but also individually. I think that’s something that’s important, like although there is specificity in the universal, like everyone has very different experiences and I can’t speak for anyone else and I think it’s really important to tell our own stories in this one piece.
Emily: Yeah and I think what’s great about this piece is that because we’re so specific to ourselves it kind of, somehow, makes it universal a well. It’s bizarre. An amazing thing that’s come out of Brown Skin Girl I think is, Emele forwarded an email from a girl who said: I’ve been wanting to write poetry and I saw your show and I was really inspired and then I auditioned for another Black Birds show and that’s like …
Ayeesha: That’s the aim …
Emily: That’s the aim, is to like get the people in there with the shared experience and say you’re important, your story is important, you’re not alone. Let’s all laugh and cry together and go forth and prosper, you know what I mean? It’s a very special show to my heart for those reasons.
Mich: So the idea behind MOXIE is to encourage young women of colour creative’s in such a tough industry and we want them to know you can be seen, you can be heard. Do you have words of advice for our readers?
Ayeesha: Yes, I just think like, believe in yourself and find the people around you who also believe in you because it took me a long time to realise this but if you don’t believe in yourself no one will. And my mum always used to tell me this but I’d just be like, I get it muuum. But it’s so true; you have to back yourself 100% because it’s a hard slog and it’s 100% worth it, but you really have to be your best supporter and motivate yourself and find those around you who can do that for you as well.
Because there’ll be a lot of people who will like try and tear you down and you just have to shut them out. You kind of have to be cutthroat and think about who is actually there for you in your life or who is there to cut you down or capitalise on your achievements.
Emily: Totally. I guess my words would be just that you are seen. That your experience in all the times that you feel alone isn’t just, you’re not the only one going through it you know, and that there is a lot of love out there. A lot of love.
Ayeesha: And I’ll add to that, you are enough.
Emily: You are enough and like as someone who grew up in a super white, like Bendigo is a white town, you know it was me and my family and that other family …
Mich: … the ones you have to be friends with …
Emily: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Like the satisfaction in finding other people who can resonate with your experience is so satisfying and actually is worth the 25-year wait, you know. It’s so cathartic, it’s so beautiful, there are so many communities of people going through the things …
Ayeesha: … you wanna find your people …
Emily: … you wanna find your people, and love them and support them and they’ll do the same for you.
Mich: And in terms of women of colour who are just slayin right now, whose work are you feeling? Like I am obsessed with everything Issa Rae does, I’m like, I see you Issa and your work sees me.
Emily: I mean, I’m obsessed with this new show on FX called Pose and all the leads are Trans-actors and I am obsessed with India Moore.
Ayeesha: I really love Mickalene Thomas, she’s a Black American artist, and she does these amazing huge artworks and portraits of women and like big things where she takes over the whole space and fills it with couches and huge screens, her work is amazing and I saw it for the first time in America two years ago and I was just obsessed with it, I wouldn’t even leave, like she just shows women of colour in such an important light. She did this one piece which was kind of about the evolution of black women in disco and, aah, it was amazing, it just blew my mind.
Emily: Is it portraits or paintings?
Ayeesha: It’s portraits, yeah, but then she also does like video work and it’s just the whole shebang.
Emily: Ooh, you should check out Honeiee, she’s a painter and she takes old renaissance artworks and repaints, like paints her own version of these stunning Black women in old renaissance styled paintings and they take her so long and I can’t wait until I make the monies so I can go and purchase like five to put in my house because like I think idolising and making God-like figures out of women who look and experience like us is so invaluable and like I’m sick of seeing those pale white cherubs.
Ayeesha: Yeah, I’m done.
Ayeesha: Thank you, next.
Mich and Emily: Thanks Ariana.
We then had a whole conversation about just how much we appreciate Ariana Grande’s latest single and the music video and for reals, that song has been stuck in my head for the past month and I blame Emily and Ayeesha.
For those readers in Sydney, Brown Skin Girl is running from 29th January – 9th February at The Old Fitz Theatre. Get your tickets now!
This interview has been condensed and edited.