I’m not a big fan of sports. I did audient at a game once when I was young, but I found the plot far too predictable and the characters quite superficial. It has always seemed to me that if you’ve seen one game, you’ve seen them all. I am generally in the habit of going straight to the sports pages in a newspaper when I need to clean the windows or if I have to deal with a puppy’s nuggets of joy. Instead of sport, for most of my life I’ve turned my attention to production styles with more drama, intrigue and three dimensional characters, but just this week, I’ve found it very interesting to note the strange audience responses to a mime act by an Aboriginal footsport player, especially given the controversy sparked by his performance.
For those living in the rest of the world, or for Australians who live in their own little bubble, what happened was essentially this: last Sunday, during a game of sportsball staged by Australia’s largest sportsball producer, the AFL, a group of Bogans in the auditorium were taunting one of the Aboriginal performers: Adam Goodes of the Adnyamathanha and Narungga peoples in South Australia. Following a plot crescendo during which one of the protagonists, an Aboriginal performer by the name of Lewis Jetta, had apparently sportsed very well, he stopped sportsing for an improvised aside in which he mimed the throwing of a spear. It was a gesture of excitement following a small victory that took its inspiration from the performer’s heritage. The mime, it seems, was very convincing: the Bogans in the auditorium were so terrified of the mimed spear that they booed ever louder, and they’ve been booing all week.
The performance, luckily, was recorded and plastered everywhere, so I have had the opportunity of viewing it on television and the interwebs approximately seven hundred and eighty four thousand, six hundred and fifty times. My considered opinion is that the mime, though solid, was not of Marcel Marceau’s calibre (though his blackface was certainly convincing). Don’t get me wrong: it was a fine mime, but so brief, and with so little development of plot or establishment of environment, that it really doesn’t appear sufficient to warrant such fear. I would have thought a prop spear may well have had such an effect, but the mime? I’m not so sure there was much to be afraid of. But the Bogans were very afraid, and the official spokesperson of Boganhood has been making it known just how frightened they were by it.
Ever since the event, the entire country has been discussing whether the mime was appropriate for this performance space. Apparently, sportsfoot games are usually a very vocal environment: performers and audiences are both encouraged to be very vocal about their feelings, so a mime is quite an unusual piece of performance art in this environment. I suspect a part of the Bogan response is the unfamiliarity of the audience with the subtlety of the protagonist’s choice of mime.
The conflict has been heated. Many Australians feel that miming an aggressive action such as throwing a spear is not appropriate, though apparently punching the air is acceptable, as is dressing in ancient Polynesian armory and screaming threatening words in a language even more frightening than German. Heck, even punching other people is apparently okay! But according to the Bogan Lord, miming the throwing of a spear is never acceptable. A good number of other middle aged white men of European heritage have also expressed their disappointment that an Aboriginal man would do Aboriginal things in Australia, and have railed at the suggestion that their response is racist. They’re even saying that pointing at racism and calling it racism is not in the spirit of the game. No wonder I don’t have an affinity with sport. According to these commentators, the Australian race who have suffered the greatest degree of racial vilification over the last 227½ years just aren’t qualified to identify racism when they see it.
Now, it is clear that Australians are more conservative about violence than most cultures, and we don’t get terribly emotional about sports. British fans of boring sports, for instance, have been known to go to more extreme lengths than Jetta, and rather than miming the throwing of a spear, the British Bogan is more inclined to kill children when he gets bored of watching a game. Brazilians also tend to throw actual things, rather than miming things to throw when they play sportsball. Thank goodness Australian players draw the line at gang rape and only mime violent acts.
As a very astute friend of mine remarked on the Book of Face, in most theatres, an audient behaving in a disruptive manner like the Bogans at Subiaco Oval would be asked to leave by one of the ushers to allow the rest of the audience to enjoy the performance. It seems to me that the failure of the venue to expel the disruptive audients is the most egregious error here. But perhaps Western Australian theatres are just more tolerant of poor behaviour in auditoria. I hear there were even people using a mobile phone during the performance! I certainly hope that custom doesn’t migrate to the eastern states; I can’t think of anything more disrespectful.
Now, I’m no expert on performances in this kind of context: I don’t usually find the plot in footsport games interesting enough to warrant any analysis on my theatre blog. But with so many people speculating about whether booing an individual for expressing their excitement in a manner appropriate for their race is racist, and since quite a few of my friends who I didn’t think were racist have been saying racist or at best just plain ignorant things this week, I felt it might be useful to describe the controversy from a different perspective. And as a dramatist, I can confirm that this is certainly the most interesting thing to happen on a sportsing paddock since the fitba riots in Europe in the 1980s led to the development of crowd control as a field of academic inquiry.
A mime in a shouty context doesn’t necessarily play well, but neither does it warrant this kind of response. I think begrudging an Aboriginal man his Aboriginality and asking him to act like a Gubba instead is definitely more than just a little bit racist. Getting upset about the miming of a violent act in an environment characterised by actual violence is, I think, equally ridiculous.
If you read nothing else about this sorry affair, give Stan Grant’s remarkable piece a go.
And if you’re not a reader, Waleed Aly debunks the two most profound myths surrounding the ever-so-apty-named Mister Goodes in this video.