Steven Oliver is ready for his homecoming with ‘Bigger & Blacker’

Black Comedy star/writer, comedy icon and cabaret sensation Steven Oliver is heading west for the first ever Perth International Cabaret Festival this June.

The self-styled Faboriginal is Bigger & Blacker in this autobiographical cabaret whirlwind, exploring his lived experience as a gay First Nations person in the public eye.

Bigger & Blacker delves into stories from Steven’s own life, traversing queer spaces, racism, love, loss and fame, blending his trademark comedic wit with unflinching honesty.

We caught up with Steven ahead of his festival appearances, and he began by reflecting back on his time living in Perth, where he met Perth International Cabaret Festival director Michael Griffiths at WAAPA.

“Michael has been someone whose been a constant in my life. We always bump into each other whether it’s in Brisbane or Sydney or even in Edinburgh at the fringe festival,” Steven says.

“I did a web series a few years back called A Chance Affair that I’d written some songs for, and with Michael being a world travelled cabaret performer, I sent him some of my songs and said what do you think of this? The next thing I know he’s talking about the Adelaide Cabaret Festival and that’s where we had our premiere of the first iteration!”

Steven says it’s kind of a homecoming of sorts for he and Griffiths to reunite with Bigger & Blacker at the festival.

“Or homocoming!” he laughs.

Part of the show explores Steven’s complicated relationship with fame, and how it’s affected his life since the success of ABC’s Black Comedy.

“There’s a bit of a struggle that I had with fame. I saw that I was becoming this idea to people, and people try to squeeze you into this way that they want you to be and I found that kind of claustrophobic and demanding,” Steven explains.

“I think fame can be utilised as a power, or as an illusion. People were saying to me after Black Comedy – ‘oh, you’re someone now’ – but I’ve always been someone. I’ve been no more, no less. I’m just as important now as I was before.”

“I equated it to racism in a way as well, because people have this perception of you, of what you’re meant to be, and they expect you to fit into that box and when you don’t fit into that box it has negative consequences sometimes.”

“Because of the power structures of racism, the smaller percentage of people are always trying to educate the larger amount. Racism is very complex and so people don’t even understand their own ingrained racism and don’t even think of what they’re saying half the time and are usually regurgitating stuff.”

Steven recalls an instance of someone commenting on a video he’d made exploring the shocking rates of Black deaths in custody here in Australia, making a sweeping generalisation that First Nations people can’t be oppressed because of his personal achievements.

“Me having a TV show doesn’t stop Black deaths in custody. It doesn’t stop high incarceration rates. It doesn’t stop high suicide rates. It doesn’t stop the fastest child removal rates,” Steven says.

“People think that because one Black person might have some kind of success about them, that it takes away all this other stuff that we struggle with and that we go through. People don’t want to learn that half the time, people don’t want to hear it, and people don’t have to learn it if it doesn’t affect them.”

“But I believe in the good in people, and if I get people laughing first I can hit them with the serious stuff afterwards.”

The multi-talented performer and writer says he aims to use comedy as a tool to break down barriers when it comes to people addressing their own racist behaviour, challenging people to look inward rather than making excuses.

“Racism is a repeated experience. I think about what I wear when I catch a cab. When I go into a shop, if I see people watching me I’m well aware to stand out in the open so it doesn’t look like I’m taking anything.”

“I took [my mother] shopping for the premiere of my play for the Brisbane Festival and immediately we were racially profiled and they asked if they could grab the handbag and hold it at the counter until we paid for it.”

“These experiences teach you how to behave. People can go through discrimination or bigotry or bias, but when you’re part of the larger power structure… trying to see racism when you’ve grown up in a racist system is like trying to see stars when you live in the city.”

Steven also highlights the prevalence of racism within LGBTQIA+ communities, exemplified by recent discussions ignited by RuPaul’s Drag Race Down Under and the history of blackface on the Australian drag scene.

“Because of those power structures, when people are making these ‘jokes’ it would have been predominantly white audiences, and so when people laugh at that… people think it’s funny, people think it’s fine, and if you try to say something they’re like ‘you need to learn to take a joke’.”

“I think people just kind of need to learn empathy, but I also think people need to educate themselves on why blackface is racist.”

“Elvis is famous the world over, if you look at all these Elvis impersonators, have you ever seen a person of colour paint themselves white pretending to be Elvis?” he asks.

“When people are painting themselves Black, they’re putting out that’s all that they’re seeing. Whereas if someone wants to do Elvis and they’re wearing the hair and wearing the clothes and doing the voice and the mannerisms and the songs with their love of Elvis, then he’s actually more than his skin.”

“People are very shallow when they do blackface, it’s either because they think it’s funny, or because they aren’t open-minded enough to understand that we are more than a colour, we are more than a sexuality, we are more than a frock. It kind of just shows ignorance and shallowness and lack of depth of understanding.”

“That being said too, some people grow up and they see those things and they think it’s fine. When things come up from the past I don’t think we should be too hard on people because hopefully they’ve learned in the meantime. But if they’re still doing it then, yes…”

“I have conversations with people all the time about racism, and they say ‘oh you’re saying I’m a bad person’ and I say no, you’re not a bad person, but you don’t take what I’m telling you, and you keep doing what you’re doing, then that will make you a bad person.”

Another prevailing theme in Bigger and Blacker is friendship, and the challenges fame can throw down when it comes to maintaining personal connections.

“I definitely was before fame came along! I think fame schedules get in the way of friendship, unfortunately,” Steven said.

“With my mob and Aboriginal people generally, we were always taught sharing and inclusiveness and never letting people feel left out. If you have something you share it.”

“So when we have these things that separate us like wealth, status, power, career, it can make it a bit hard. But when you exist just as people, and you see people, all people as people, I don’t think it’s that hard… unless someone’s really an asshole!”

Steven Oliver’s Bigger and Blacker will in town as part of Perth International Cabaret Festival on Thurs 24th and Fri 25th June. For tickets and more information, head to perthcabaret.com.au

Interview: Graeme Watson, Article: Leigh Andrew Hill


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