Decentering Whiteness and Heteronormativity: Jean Tong’s ‘Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit’ offers a fresh take on a classic romantic tale

Jean Tong‘s musical directorial debut, Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit, offers audiences a refreshing take on a classic love story, putting the voices of queer women and women of colour front and centre. Hot Chicks with Big Brains caught up with Jean to find out what inspired the “satirical lesbian pop musical rom com”, how she overcame the challenges she’s faced while working the production, and who inspires her.

Hi Jean! Please can you tell us a bit about who you are and what you do?

I’m a writer and playwright, currently completing a Master in Writing for Performance at the VCA. I’m the writer, director, and lyricist for Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit.

What is Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit all about?

Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit is a satirical lesbian pop musical rom com.

It includes an Incompetent Dead Lesbian Chorus trying their best to keep our heroines, Juliet and Darcy, from falling in love because, if they fall in love, the Bury Your Gays trope might come into effect and one—or both—of them might meet their demise.

It’s a response to mainstream media and pop culture’s inadequate representation of queer women, and women of colour—with some musical bangers and a whole lot of gags thrown in.

How did you come up with the ideas behind Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit? What inspired you?

The ideas behind the story came about from the frustration I felt over the lack of stories created by or about queer people and people of colour, especially on Australian stages.

I wanted to explore what would happen if I decentred Whiteness and heteronormativity, and screwing around with queer and straight tropes and classic romance storylines seemed like the best (read: impertinent and therefore preferable) way to go about it.

The decision to make this a musical came from theatre collective DisColourNation, which includes several Romeo cast members. Comprising artists of colour, DisColourNation’s aim is to amplify diverse voices, experiences and stories, often in musical ways.

We had all this talent, so of course we wanted to see what we could do with it.

The first iteration of Romeo used existing music, but in this new version for Poppy Seed Theatre Festival, I worked with composer and sound designer James Gales (Sailor Take Warning) to write eight original songs.

Can you tell us about some of the challenges you’ve faced while working on Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit? How did you overcome them?

Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit is the first musical I’ve ever directed, so I’ve had to do a lot of catching up in terms of figuring out the style and how prescriptive the directions had to be (particularly because our stage space is 4.5m x 2m!). The show’s managed to come together as I’ve been mentored by brilliant directors Petra Kalive and Bridget Balodis, as well as been closely supported by Musical Director Will Hannagan. Their generosity and articulate feedback has meant that I’ve been able to navigate a lot of new territory without feeling too lost, while feeling like I could continuously ask questions and get some support.

What’s given you the greatest sense of achievement to date and why?

Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit’s Opening Night coincidentally landed on the date of the postal vote results announcement. As a result, more than a few people have said that the show felt incredibly special to them, because the positive representation of queer romantic love and other themes felt closely linked to the context and very impactful.

It felt really gratifying to be able to link those things and make something that is timely, and maybe offers the community—just briefly—a space to come together to feel celebrated and loved.

Who are some of the women that most inspire you and why?

As I write this, it’s the tail end of a very long year full of continued violence against marginalised communities, women reliving their pain and trauma over sexual harassment and assault, and a rising resilience in xenophobic, sexist, homophobic attitudes.

It’s so cheesy, but women that most inspire me are the ones in my communities doing the everyday work of building each other up, maintaining the support network that tenuously enables our safety, and straight up being badasses fighting systemic abuse every single day of their lives.

They aren’t famous, they aren’t on vocal on public platforms, and they don’t seek accolades, but they are so present and it is their tenderness that keeps all our movements alive.

What’s next for you?

In 2018, I’ll be finishing up hungry ghosts for Melbourne Theatre Company as part of their Education program. It criss-crosses between storylines of the fate of MH370, corruption in Malaysia, and the exploration of Malaysian diaspora identity. I have a week with my director and actors to workshop it before I go hide from the world and finish the next draft.

I’ll also be looking into further possibilities for developing Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit. I think it’d make a really funky film or podcast, so if you know anyone who’d be interested in producing that, send them my way!

Get your tickets to see Romeo Is Not The Only Fruit!


Answers by Jean Tong

Images by Bede McKenna

Questions and Edits by Emma Kate Lewis

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