CANDY BOWERS: Make Your Colour Your Centerpiece
Candy Bowers is a refreshing face in the performing arts scene of Australia. She has performed all over the world creating works that address issues of race, culture and identity. A cultural warrior, Bowers talks to us about what it’s like to be a person of colour in the performance world, the struggles she faces and her experience of performing in Straight White Men as the omnipresent intersectional feminist of colour.
THE PIN. Where were you born?
CANDY BOWERS. I was born in Dandenong, at Dandenong Hospital.
What was it like in your household growing up; did you have a different culture inside your house to what was outside?
C. Yes, although we had a very multicultural street. We had South Africans who grew up with my parents living at the end of the street, and South Africans around the corner as well. In the ‘80s Dandenong was not as multicultural as it is now, but still quite multicultural. I think as a young person I found it really difficult to understand that I was being brought up with South African culture. I just thought my parents were really weird and different to everyone else's parents. There was definitely a sense of trying to find myself; I really wanted to fit in, I really wanted to be Aussie. So there was a lot of rejection.
What ideas around identity, ethnicity, race and culture did your parents instil in you as you grew up?
C. Coming from apartheid South Africa they instilled the idea that I could be anything I wanted to be. They taught me that in a country like Australia (read: without racism), I could do whatever I wanted to do. My mother wasn’t allowed to do a lot of things in South Africa, so she put us into a lot of classes (like ballet and guitar) that only the really light-skinned girls had been allowed to do back home.
What does “Blasian” mean?
C. “Blasian” to me means being part Black, part Asian and part Caucasian. My grandmother is Xhosa and Dutch. My grandfather is Chinese-Malaysian and came from Indonesia to South Africa. He also changed his last name from Leong to Leon, to sound less Asian. He looks very Chinese so I don't know how well it worked [laughs].
How old were you when you became aware of the concept of race?
C. I remember when I changed schools - I was ten - there was a lot of name-calling and things like that. My mother always told me not to make colour my centrepiece, so I used to let it roll off my back. I think a lot of kids were impressed.
I also remember early on some of my friends saying, ‘Why are you that colour?’. I went home and I asked my mum why I was a different colour and she said, ‘We left you on St Kilda beach and you got burnt!’, so I went back to school and told everyone. For a full week everyone bought it, but then this one clever kid said, ‘Why is your mum brown then?’ and I was like, ‘Fuckkk’. I think my mum always had a twinkle in her eye thinking, ‘These white kids are going to get a good story’.
What was it like to join a circus?
C. It was really different and interesting. Even coming back into my acting I noticed there are some real positives in watching circus people do their thing. Actors need to know why they do things whereas circus people just do it, and do it to the most extreme physical ability. You can get really in your head when you’re acting. On the other hand, in the circus world they don’t want to talk about anything, so it can get very superficial. There is a fear of getting deep and in the acting world there is a fear of being shallow. It’s good to mix it up.
What is it about acting that first pulled you in, and what does it allow you to express?
C. What I have found in acting is there are some struggles around how I look in an Australian setting. Really early on, I was told I didn’t represent enough of Australia so I wouldn’t get that many roles, because “we want to see ourselves” and I thought, ‘Well I’d like to see myself too, and there are a lot of people that would’. I was told early on was that I wasn’t a universal figure but what I’ve learnt is that’s actually bullshit. Inside the theatre we can be any imagining or dreaming we want to be. For me, I still see the potential of what theatre can do and how it can speak directly. That’s why I still do it. I feel like there aren’t many forms that can speak directly and actually create such a palpable experience.
You explore race, identity and culture in your own work. Why is that important when you are writing/performing on stage?
C. Everywhere I go I meet First Nations people, mixed race people and women of colour. We’re all experiencing this complex space and trying to live truly and perform truly. When people say, ‘Just be raceless!” or ‘Be colourblind!’… I don’t buy it. What I believe they are really asking is that people of colour act like white people. I think the concept of acting like “people” is an interesting one. We all come from a specific and unique cultural context. In that cultural context there has been white supremacy and a bunch of things that bury some stories and hold up others. I bring that out in my work because there is a big gap, particularly in Australia, where people of colour just don’t get to see themselves. I want us to have that same journey that white folks gets to have in the theatre.
What has your experience been like working on Straight White Men?
C. It’s a really fascinating play; it’s been very eye opening for me. Mainstage theatre in Melbourne is a very white, elite space. There’s a lot of talk of diversity, but I haven’t seen any significant shift. What’s blown me out of the water is the experience of a lot of the guys in our show: one of them was just saying to me he did not know what he was getting into.
My colleagues had never been in the black feminist gaze before, and for them it was a brand new experience. I think we’re robbing actors of that experience. I’ve had the amazing experience of seeing the political consciousness of the actors in Straight White Men grow. If you could do that with everyone, wow! It’s been a thrilling ride but unfortunately also deeply disappointing at times. As a mid-career artist, I feel such a responsibility to speak up when I am feeling dismissed or disappointed. We are in a lot of denial about where we are at in Australia; folks will wholeheartedly deny bigotry while programming 90% white plays, written by white writers, directed by white directors and performed by all white casts…the Straight White Men experience has illuminated the lack of real diversity on a massive scale.
What does it mean to be a brown woman in Australia today?
C. Unfortunately we are unseen, unheard, easily belittled and easily put out with the trash. It’s hard to feel empowered in such a structurally racist and oppressive space. A space where people will tell you within two seconds that you don’t know what you’re talking about. I have to constantly say, ‘Stop telling me what my embodied experience is, this is my experience damn you!’.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about the skin you’re in, what would it be?
CANDY BOWERS. I would have to say to her the European concept of beauty is only one concept of beauty, and to KNOW that she is beautiful. Particularly in my field, where women are essentially being told they will never be enough daily. I wish I could go back and say they are wrong. All of them are wrong….what you feel inside yourself, your instinct, is just right!
- This interview has been edited and condensed.
Photo credit: Provided by C. Bowers.