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February 21, 2022
Culture

Racism and remorse with drag royalty Kween Kong

Last Fringe, an arts reviewer referred to Pasifika performer Thomas Fonua as ‘black pudding’, sparking debate about racism in arts media. After a year-long silence, the artist’s drag diva alter-ego, Kween Kong, offers a take on the saga in an Adelaide Fringe show.

  • Words: Angela Skujins
  • Pictures: Supplied

It’s been 12 months since Thomas Fonua was likened to “black pudding” in a Fringe review on the arts website Scenestr.

Remarks

Black Puddin’
Thurs 24 Feb—Sat 19 Mar
Wonderland Festival Hub
Hindmarsh Square, Adelaide 5000

More info here.

Although the reference has since been erased from the online article, the racially motivated remark has long-lingered with Thomas – a Tongan and Sāmoan dancer, choreographer, producer and drag queen, known as Kween Kong.

But like a true artist, Thomas has turned the saga into a genre-blending performance called Black Puddin’, which debuts this week as part of the Adelaide Fringe.

“This is going to be my artistic response to the debacle that happened last year at Fringe,” Thomas tells CityMag over Zoom from a bucolic Airbnb in Victoria. He’s in the countryside on holiday ahead of the 10 performances he has scheduled, across a variety of shows, in the Mad March period.

“I’m taking something that was really frustrating, but also reclaiming the situation and using it as an opportunity to educate all of us – not cancel anyone,” he says.

“It’s speaking to the matter at hand and using my story as an example, while also zoning out and going, ‘This happens across the board.’”

If you feel like there hasn’t been a place for you in mainstream media, this is your place to come in and get under the shoulders of Kween Kong and her Haus.
—Thomas Fonua

Black Puddin’ is a theatre, comedy, drag, circus, music and dance performance exploring the psychological tactics humans use to wriggle out of apologies.

The episode that spurred the show began on 1 March last year, when a review of Smashed — The Brunch Party was published on Scenestr. In the review, the author likened each of the performers to breakfast items – a play on the show’s title. To Thomas, he ascribed “black pudding”.

“When I read it initially, I wasn’t offended by the words ‘black pudding’,” Thomas says. “I was more offended that he tokenised me by stating my race, because he didn’t do that to anyone else in the cast.”

According to Thomas, the Smashed team spoke to the reviewer, James Murphy, on his behalf regarding the problematic reference. A private apology was swiftly offered and the reference removed, Thomas says.

James, who contributed to CityMag last year as part of our Writer-in-Residence program with The Mill, says he remains “remorseful for the unintentional hurt” caused by the review. He says he is continuing to “educate” himself on the experiences of culturally and linguistically diverse people to eliminate “blind spots”.

After the publication of the review, Smashed co-creator Victoria Falconer-Pritchard published a statement on Instagram describing the “black pudding” reference in the review as “undeniably, inexplicably racist” while demanding a public apology from the publication.

 

Victoria Falconer-Pritchard, who’s working as part of the new Black Puddin’, tells CityMag she’s “super interested” to see the performance platform and process something traumatic. “I think it’s going to be great,” she says.

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A day after Victoria’s statement, Scenestr’s publisher, Howard Duggan, issued his own 958-word article refuting Victoria’s claims of “inexplicable racism” while defending the publication.

When CityMag reached out to Howard Duggan regarding Thomas’ new work centring on the episode, he said: “We’re confident Mr Fonua’s show will reflect – contrary to some high-profile social media chatter and press reports at the time – in our one and only public statement on this matter [that] both Scenestr and I apologised to Mr Fonua within 24 hours of Ms Falconer’s call for us to do so.”

An Advertiser article, dated 15 March 2021, publicised the controversy further and included statements from Adelaide Fringe chief executive Heather Croall supporting the Smashed team.

Left out of the Advertiser story, and much of the discussion around the incident, was Thomas’ voice.

One year on, the performer is ready to explore the saga onstage, through humour, performance and psychological theory.

To create Black Puddin’, Thomas pored over books by the father of psychoanalysis, Sigmund Freud, to understand the defence mechanisms employed by people attempting to manoeuvre out of saying sorry.

The show’s cast of “apologist addicts” – mimes, drag queens, aerialists, hand balancers and clowns – will represent six defensive traits, such as repression, denial, projection and rationalisation, to demonstrate the ridiculousness of each tactic in practice.

The ‘Black Puddin” cast

 

“We’re looking at six defence mechanisms that are super performative and stupid,” Thomas says.

“Basically, every character is one defence mechanism. We’re showcasing and physicalising the caricature of denial, or projection – of all these mechanisms.”

To take an apology out of the verbal and into the realm of action was a perspective that came to Thomas through his Sāmoan heritage.

In Sāmoan culture, there is a public expression of remorse called ifoga, in which a person apologising humiliates themselves by kneeling outside the home of the person they’ve wronged, covered in a fine mat.

Sometimes lasting weeks, ifoga is a physical display of remorse, whereby the aggrieved can forgive or reject the apologiser.

“It’s a performative ceremony where you are literally showing the action of the [apology], rather than just saying ‘I’m sorry’,” Thomas says.

“That was what piqued my interest about taking [‘sorry’] out of the vocabulary and actually seeing what we could do with the task of being artistic idiots and making a song and dance about everything else.”

While Thomas encourages everyone to buy tickets for Black Puddin’, he hopes anyone with experience being misunderstood or misrepresented in mainstream media will come along to bear witness to the artistic absurdity.

“If you feel like there hasn’t been a place for you in mainstream media, this is your place to come in and get under the shoulders of Kween Kong and her Haus,” he says.

For tickets and more information on the show, see the event page.

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