From Blackness – the genius and generosity of Steven Oliver

23 Mar 2021

Dr Chelsea Watego celebrates the genius of Steven Oliver and the themes he addresses in 'Bigger and Blacker.'

So most people know Steven Oliver for that infamous line “what’s this then slut?” but I remember him from the time I sat in a reading of his play ‘From Darkness’ which was produced by LaBoite in 2019. 

‘From Darkness’ was set in the lounge room of a Black family with a rich dialogue between mum, dad, nan and the kids all of whom were grappling with grief on the anniversary of the loss of a brother, son and grandchild. 

Honestly, it could have been any one of our lounge rooms. 

After the reading, one of the audience members, (yes she was a white woman) drew parallels between the lounge room setting and a war zone. Naturally I interjected to speak in defence of Black lounge rooms and I can still recall the look on Steven’s face at how wild I got. He reckons he “saw a Black arm shoot up before hearing a Black mouth straight out correct ‘Aunty’”. From that day on, we would laugh about the cheek of those white people referring to Black lounge rooms as war zones, denying us a consoling Black domesticity.

You see, some people can only see violence in the brutal honesty and hardship that exists in the Black home, and in doing so, miss the tenderness and beauty of it all. 

Steven returns to LaBoite in 2021 with Bigger and Blacker and this time he is talking from the kitchen table accompanied by a piano with his new cabaret show. 

It is as though he is entertaining us, his Black family who are seated in the lounge room after dinner. There’s no question that Bigger and Blacker was made for a Black audience – little is translated, except for an explanation of ‘gammon’ which is more of a theorising than a dictionary definition. 

And look, it’s a damn show that takes us all kinds of places we never expected. Of course there would be the Steven Oliver fans who are lining up for the one-liners, which we know he can deliver, but he ends up giving us far more than that. 

And ironically, it is from the place of darkness that Oliver packs his most powerful punch to date. On his time with ABC’s Black Comedy he talks of the irony of making people laugh at what was the saddest point in his life. He speaks of being popularised by a punchline that at times was dehumanising. For instance he speaks of the joy of being in the moment with mob – the people he says who show us peace; only to be routinely and randomly ‘ripped out of those moments’ just for a photo. But this is not a lament of being famous, rather it refers to the seamless story of having one’s body deemed not belonging – to oneself as much as the social world it was situated within. 

He speaks of being gay – as being, what it is to feel those words that are said in a way that makes you feel that there’s something bad about you. Words, he reminds us “don’t break bones, but they do break hearts”.  He sings of being a minority within a minority, of coming out to his mum. He tells of an unconditional love of a Black mother, but too of himself as a Black uncle. He reminds us of a Black relationality that doesn’t articulate itself via how far away we are. Instead, it insists on bringing people in, modelled by a mum who simply said ‘you’re my son, I love you’. 

He speaks of rejection, but also the importance of love as reciprocal. He cautions us, that “there are people in the world who only want you for you”, even though they don’t actually get you. He advises, you need to find people who “give as much as they take”, and importantly, people that get you.  When he belts out ‘Get Me’ he is not making an appeal for validation. It is a demand to be understood. “Just get me, just get me” he sings ‘Don’t let me think it’s no good trying to be understood, you get me?” 

And this was the power of the pain that he shares so generously with audiences, day in and day out. It is in his refusal to accept the parameters for which he could exist. In his being, from his opening number ‘Faboriginal’ to the closing ‘You’re Powerful’ Oliver refuses to adhere to the violent logics inscribed upon his body as a Black gay man. It is in Oliver’s refusal to turn to cheap jokes to entertain an audience uninterrupted for over an hour that we too witness his genius. 

You see Oliver, in his being, shows us the power of pain. And yes, Black comedy (pardon the pun) has helped us breath in those moments, but there is a strength required of one prepared to display a public vulnerability, particularly for Black people, and perhaps more so for Black men in this place. 

But it is in his being ‘Blacker and Better’ that Oliver articulates a powerful Black masculinity that for some of our brothers and fathers didn’t seem possible; a distinctly Indigenous masculinity that in its inclusiveness is relational rather than hierarchical, but strong nonetheless. 

It is Oliver, from the darkness of pain, who illuminates an intersectionality that tells of multiple oppressions, while simultaneously finding a way through it all. 

It is through song, the songs of Blackfullas that we find that way out – and while Oliver leans on Whitney Houston’s ‘Step by Step’, I know many people who left La Boite with the gift of ‘Your Song’ from Oliver himself. In understanding the violence of rejection, of dispossession, of disconnection he re-narrates through song, not the problem of the Black gay man, but the social world that refuses to see his humanity. 

He says:  

All along they were wrong, 

They just didn’t know your song, 

They just couldn’t sing your song… 

Cause your song was much too strong 

Indeed, Steven Oliver is much too strong for this place, comedically, culturally and intellectually. And look, for all of his big budoo, ass shaking jokes, it is Oliver’s integrity and humanity that lingers long after the standing ovations stop. In making sense, not of ‘Bigger and Blacker’, but of the world according to a Black gay man in the colony, we have sadly yet to take up the challenge to reimagine a humanity, drawn from Blackness in all of its beauty.  

Some think we started in the light. That we’ll find answers there, but light only exists because it is born of darkness. The deepest thought exists where there is no light and only when the world closes its eyes will it stop seeing the lies. We’re running onwards so fast that when we need to find our way back, we won’t know where to go. If we don’t fix our own connectedness in this world, it disrupts all that goes beyond. We must return to a time before so that a new way can be lit. 

Steven Oliver, 2019 ‘From Darkness’

Bigger and Blacker is on now at La Boite Theatre, Brisbane, 24th, 25th, 26th, and 27th March 2021 – click here to book. 

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