I conduct my interviews for Ladies Day in the grounds of my Broome Hotel, where the pool is a hot bath, even with the shade of four flimsy triangles of bleached shadecloth. It does boast a beautiful old boab tree though, with fruiting fat pods which my interviewee picks off, breaks open and urges me to eat. The flavour is like sour mango, like the dry tart jolt of reality this town is handing to me on a platter of welcome.
‘So you’re here to write about gay men who live in Broome?’ he asks me, squinting.
‘That’s right’, I smile, hopefully .
‘Why don’t you just watch Brokeback Mountain?’ he offers.
‘Well, Brokeback Mountain is about American men,’ I say.
‘Yeah, but there was an Australian in the lead, so what difference does it make?
‘You mean why do I need to come over here and actually talk to people?’
‘No, I can see that you need to do your background research, that you might get some good stories over here.’
‘I want it to be authentic,’ I say.
‘What difference does that make to a good story?’ he says, and echoing the conversations of a thousand Sydney foyers he continues, ‘Brokeback Mountain was written by a Canadian woman and directed by a Taiwanese man and it’s the most beautiful gay love story I’ve ever seen in my life. If I want authentic I can watch one of those documentaries on television.’
‘So maybe the theatre should just do an adaptation of the short story,’ I huff, defeated by the heat and the flies and the cruel logic of his insights.
‘Maybe they should, I’d come and see that. Not sure about your play though.’
And then he laughs in that typically Australian way of someone who, having abused you in the most genial way possible, then slaps you on the back and offers to buy you a cold beer. Which, in Broome, is always welcome. The validity (or not) of my investigations hangs in the air between us as we head out to the biggest event on the Broome social calendar, the opening of the Broome races. There, in the VIP bar, I meet an elder of the Broome community and, as we push past the Broome girls tottering on their unfamiliar high heels ‘Don’t move too fast or you’ll topple them darling’, and stand to watch horses run around a chocolate brown track as the punters around us get utterly smashed, ‘Just like race tracks everywhere, darling’, we talk about his sissy boy past and how early the alienation and discrimination started.
In the car back to my accommodation, I wind down the windows to let in the smell of soil, freshly churned by their four-wheel drives. I’m giddy already with the daring red of the Jigal trees in bloom, dazzled already by the cobalt of the coast, and there on reception, queer as a baroque pearl is my next interview subject. He introduces me to all his gay friends and we visit Cable Beach together, where tourists ride on a procession of camels that wends its way across the sand as the sunsets spectacularly in the west. What I love about meeting these men is the easy way in which we picked up a common conversation, the generous way they disclose themselves, the familiarity of their issues, the similarity of their concerns. And yet under the surface is a wariness, an awareness of vulnerability perhaps, or a consciousness about not censoring or limiting themselves here. And on the breeze, sometimes, is the slow odour of violence.
Just as no play of mine is ever about the subject, Ladies Day is not a play about gay men in Broome. Yes, I went to Broome and yes, I met and recorded interviews with men who identify as homosexual. Yes, what they told me of their experience will frame the traffic of the story on stage. But what these men demanded of me as a writer was that I go well and truly beyond the role of chronicler of other people’s stories and put myself, quite literally myself, into this story. The play contains revelations that, if I wrote about them here, would spoil the experience of the theatre going audience. It is always tricky to write about what a play is actually about without letting the dramatic cat out of the bag. Because, in the end, what I have tried to write is a play about the nature of truth and its relationship to storytelling, a play which reflects on all my work as a verbatim-inspired, authenticity loving artist but concedes power to the magical, fictional, self-delusional nature of the stories we tell ourselves and others.
I am Sydney born and bred, so I’ve dreamed of the privilege of the Griffin space many, many times. People say it is a small stage, but I’ve always thought of Griffin as a huge mouth, the audience like teeth either side and the players performing down along the fleshy tongue and up into the throat of the space. The tongue is where all the strongest taste and textures and flavours of our world are experienced, the tongue is a sexual organ and a source of immense pleasure as well as the site of viperous malice and pain. And the tongue wraps itself around words but ultimately those words must transform into theatre to work on our emotions and remain in our spirits.
When I visited Broome I got to know the smell of diesel fuel, and the hum of airconditioning units, and the flip flap slap of thongs, and the late night laying awake can’t get to sleep sweetness of the dark. With Darren Yap and this incredible cast, we will try to honour the gay men who entrusted me with their stories. But Ladies Day is not a documentary. I hope the love story will move you. I hope the humour will disarm you. I hope the brutality and savagery and sheer queer beauty will affect you. But most of all I hope you will come and watch me disclose an aspect of my own story that these men forced me to see.
By Alana Valentine
5 February – 26 March 2016