How Black Women Are Opening Their Own Doors Into Australian Theatre, On Their Own Terms

"In Australian theatre [generally], rarely do shows get a second life," says Moreblessing Maturure.
But her latest project, Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner, has defied the odds and returned to the stage after a sold-out season last year.
The play, based on Black British playwright Jasmine Lee-Jones’ script, explores the internet, cultural appropriation, queerness, friendship, colourism and the commodification of Black women. And with an all-female cast and crew, of which 95% are women of colour (WOC) and more than 65% are Black women, it's a project monumental in championing diverse female voices in Aussie theatre.
"Rarely do shows built, created and made by this type of team ever get a second life," Maturure tells Refinery29 Australia. "Or get such a thriving first life and then get a second life." As a co-producer and star of the play, she appreciates being able to reunite with the team behind it "and somehow make a show that was already really amazing, better."
Photo by Teniola Komolafe
Moreblessing Maturure in Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner
While Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner continues its Sydney run before moving on to Brisbane and Melbourne, there are more Black female-led productions simultaneously running at local theatres.
Chewing Gum Dreams, written by UK actor, Michaela Coel, is also on in Sydney. The one-woman play looks at adolescence, exploring sex, race and friendship through the eyes of a teenager on the cusp of adulthood.
Meanwhile, Orange Thrower, the first original play by Kirsty Marillier opens next month. It's a poignant love letter to South African women in Australia and beyond, dealing with family, hair and making your voice heard.
Does this wave of female-led theatre centred on stories about the diaspora signify a new moment? Are Black women having a moment in Australian theatre, claiming their power in a competitive, traditionally white-dominated industry?
"It's very hard to claim power when we don't necessarily have the reins to enough structural, systemic machinery," says Maturure. "We can be applauded and clap for shifting the culture of theatre-making in this city [Sydney] and in this country," she continues, but says she thinks the industry is yet to "meet us remotely halfway".
She assures this sentiment isn't to diminish the progress that's been made. These productions are coming into play because Black women have opened doors, and rightfully on their own terms.
"Even talking about Chewing Gum Dreams and Orange Thrower that's coming up, and Black Brass and A Raisin In The Sun, these are opportunities that have been pushed forward and forged by Black people," says Maturure. "And, the majority of those ones being Black women creating those opportunities for themselves and for their peers, colleagues and communities."

"It's very hard to claim power when we don't necessarily have the reins to enough structural, systemic machinery."

Moreblessing Maturure
Going to watch Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner is more than just spending a night at the theatre. It's an immersive experience encapsulating culture, community and connection. There are Black female DJs in the foyer, pre-show Black culture trivia, and collaborations with local creatives such as Flex Mami with her ReFlex card game.
Chewing Gum Dreams also extends its experience to one centring on community interaction. There are Q&A sessions for young people with the creative team behind the production as well as with Black mental health experts.
So, creating these productions are just as much about how the stories are told as they are about which stories are told. The team behind these plays are calling the shots when engaging with venues and production companies.
"We were very clear in how we wanted to engage with companies and being like, 'It is so much more than the play'," explains Maturure. "The play is amazing, but the actual production is so much more than that. You don't get the play without everything else around it."
She says it's about telling companies, "No, these are the terms of engagement. We're setting them and this is how we want to make theatre. These are the type of spaces we want to make.'
"There's a potential opportunity here to quite rigorously and over a longer period of time, to demand companies, makers, producers and presenters to challenge, shift and question how they're making theatre and for who and to what end."
Photo supplied
Annitha Kontyo and Henrietta Amevor
South African-born Annitha Kontyo, a creative associate on Chewing Gum Dreams, believes Black women are "most definitely" having their 'moment' in Australian theatre.
"Black women are rising right now, and I'm loving it," she says. "It's so amazing that these productions are happening because it's opening doors. It's opening doors for Black excellence to just happen because that is so needed."
Fellow creative associate on Chewing Gum Dreams, Henrietta Amevor agrees, saying "it's about time" Black women take up space in the industry.
"We're seeing why Chewing Gum Dreams and Seven Methods are so important because they tell our stories in different contexts," the Ghanaian Australian creative explains. "They don't just tell stories in the context of Harmony Day or Africa Day or in a monolithic context. We're saying, "Yeah, we're here and we have big stories and experiences and we don't exist in a vacuum or a single context."
Masego Pitso remembers the first time she came across Maturure, who'd go on to become a role model. "She's the first Black actor that I saw and I think she was in the paper," she recalls. "This was years ago when I was in high school."
Now studying a Bachelor of Arts majoring in theatre and sociology, Pitso's also the star of the Australian version of Chewing Gum Dreams. For the 24-year-old, who migrated to Australia from South Africa with her family when she was six, seeing limited Black representation in the arts made her grow up thinking she'd need to move overseas to pursue a creative career.
"I thought I'd study and then find greener pastures elsewhere, where there's a more established presence of Black people in the arts. I would be able to go there and do something and flourish."
Playing Tracy in Chewing Gum Dreams is Pitso's debut role and she emphasises that representation isn't just about who's on stage, but who's behind the curtain too. It's important to have an inclusive set and production team.
"I remember coming into this, I was quite nervous because obviously, I didn't know anyone. I didn't know who would be part of the team," admits the actor. Seeing people like Amevor, whom she had crossed paths with before, made her feel "grounded and supported".
"It's a huge shift to go on a set and have a Black person there. It changes things for you, like you just sink into the space a little bit more," she explains. "You feel a little bit more comfortable and some things just don't have to be explained. If you're tapping your head because your hair is itchy, they know what it means."
Image supplied
Masego Pitso
While Seven Methods Of Killing Kylie Jenner and Chewing Gum Dreams have been written by British Black women, the story of Orange Thrower is closer to home, written by Sydney-based Kirsty Marillier.
"I think it's so wonderful to have works on lots of Black females," says Marillier. "At the same time, I think the distinctive thing about this play is that it's an Australian work. Something I'm proud of is that it is very much about the African Australian experience and the mixed-race experience in Australia as well."
While not strictly autobiographical, Orange Thrower takes inspiration from Marillier's lived experiences. She migrated to Australia from South Africa with her parents when she was 10, initially settling in a country town in Western Australia before moving to Perth.
"A lot of the characters are reflective of where I might have been at a certain period of time in my life," she explains.
"The reason I started writing it, is because I started thinking about coming of age plays — plays that the Year 11 and 12 students studied for the HSC (Higher School Certificate)."
Marillier had noted there would often "be one migrant character or one Indigenous character" and that needed to change. "I just went, 'I'm just going to place people of colour in the centre of the narrative and see how that fields in a world that I know quite well, which is the coming of age play.
"Because it was the stuff that took me to the theatre in the first place. It was the stuff I studied in high school, and it was the stuff that made me really excited to be a performer."
The actor believes diverse communities will feel seen and heard when they watch this play, especially audiences in multicultural suburbs like Parramatta in Western Sydney.
"I think especially when we're going to do shows out in Parramatta and in certain communities, I think it's going to have a really big impact on people's lives," she says. "I hope it does anyway."
Photo by Brett Boardman
Kirsty Marillier with Nadie Kammallaweera
We're gradually seeing more Black women in theatre, but where to from here? It's about consistency and casting the net further to improve representation across all fronts in entertainment for the next generation.
"I was watching Seven Methods on opening night and I looked at it and I was like, 'This needs to be a TV show,'" says Kontyo. "Kids need to see it. It can't just be in theatre and then it closes and that's it. No, it needs to be something else because if kids are going to watch that, they're going to be like, 'Oh my gosh, I can create something like this.'"
It's by having "Black stories being embedded in the mainstream" that more widespread change will occur, according to Amevor.
"I don't think that anyone going to a Shakespeare show would be considered unique or interesting. They go just they go into a show because they're going to enjoy that show," she says.
"And I would love that to be the same with Black stories and stories of colour, where people enjoy the show and not because there's something that Black women or women of colour need to teach them."
While their stories are diverse, each of these creatives has a strong view in common. Progress is being made but there are leaps and bounds to go. For Black women, this isn't just a moment. So watch this space.

More from Entertainment