"Hands up, who enjoys being white?" An amused Elisabeth Gunawan asks the audience in Unforgettable Girl - her one person show at Camberwell’s Golden Goose Theatre, directed by Simon Gleave and Briony O’Callaghan. Gunawan invites us to share her understanding of the racial and gender hierarchies that exist in today’s global society. It’s a very personal perspective, but one that resonates.
Gunawan is a clever performer.
She began exploring these issues when she realised that in order to ‘pass’ when she moved from her home in Indonesia to New York and then to London, she felt the need to adopt an American accent and a westernised persona - later on discovering that she had lost some of her own sense of self in the process.
The show opens with Gunawan hilariously arriving as a mail-order bride in an Amazon Prime delivery box. She plays a stereotyped caricature made up of an amalgamation of south east Asian nationalities. She markets her talents as a mail-order bride - various skills, both domestic and sexual - with few very funny intellectual asides thrown in to remind us of the complex and clever human that lies beneath the sexy wedding dress and the slapped on make-up.
She is tethered by a rope for the duration of the show. We assume these are socio-economic shackles but she tells us that the rope could well be there to protect us from her! She calls the genre ‘trash theatre’ and in fact, Charlie Wood’s design has a very chaotic, trashy feel to it. There is nothing glamorous or slick here - allowing us to feel on a visceral level that some lives are valued less than others in this world.
There is a single moment in the play when Gunawan quietly approaches a microphone, allowing the performance, the persona and the separation between actor and audience to fall away. And we become aware of our shared, complex and valuable humanity. It’s beautiful.
Gunawan is a clever performer. The themes are deeply personal and political, and the style is satirical. She challenges us as an audience and makes us feel deeply uncomfortable, but at the same time her warmth shines through - allowing us to experience a respect and love for humanity, so often lacking in the dehumanising transactions she so deftly defines on stage.
We come away from the experience wondering how much of ourselves we sacrifice in the appeasement of racism, homophobia and misogyny. And how much humanity is compromised in the process.
This show, brilliantly supported by Kyll Antony Cole the acrobatic stage hand/technician is still evolving, and it will undoubtedly be further developed before its next iteration at this year’s Voila Festival.