Digging into desire

20 January 2022

In their new burlesque-cabaret work, local theatre makers Joe Lui and Phoebe Sullivan dive into desire, to strip away some ugly truths. But what prompted them to lay these issues bare?

Content note: This article contains profanities and strong sexual references.

Why do we want who we want? Joe Lui and Phoebe Sullivan talk about what drove them to confront some difficult questions surrounding gender, race and desire in their new work, The Ugly.

Joe Lui:

In my many years of making as a theatre artist, I have never confronted the issue of my relationship to race head on. It always seemed too… gauche, or at least passè.

Most Asian migrants to the global West identify with an odd sense of neither-here-nor-there-ness. We bear witness to arguments about Black and white, we wonder where we are meant to find ourselves. We understand what it is to feel the colonial boot on our necks; we also understand what it is to be the colonisers, or at least, part of the arsenal of colonial tools. We are oppressors and we are oppressed, which means we can always find some niche in any racial argument to disappear into, or to erase ourselves from.

As an Asian man – a Chinese man nonetheless – especially one with a mostly-straight sexuality, that sense of self as an oppressor is twofold. We are part of the colonial toolkit that dehumanises other races. My home countries (China and Singapore) have perpetuated abuses on othered peoples. And as a man, I am a beneficiary of the patriarchy – and reap all the privileges of that gross membership. The white world treats Asian women far more harshly than Asian men (thanks patriarchy), and my slice of Asia is certainly no stranger to misogyny, so again… describing or making art about my experience seems… gauche. Passè.

(I must add that my sense of myself as a “man” is loose – I have great difficulty attaching my identity to the word, but it is how I am perceived so… man it is.)

So why confront that racial/gender intersection now? And why do it in a burlesque work about sex? The second question is perhaps easier to answer.

Wanting to be wanted is a fundamental experience of being human. For me, it encapsulates the vast complexity of Asian male-ness into a single, comprehensible issue. For sure, we are emasculated and desexualised by the dominant culture. But in any singular amorous interaction, there is no way of telling for sure about that racism, you can only feel it in its all consuming totality. Also for sure – Asian women, fetishised, exoticised, predated upon, have it far far worse. Also for sure – if you chase at the “culturally emasculated” argument and feeling for long enough, you become the entitled and (probably a far worse sin) boring incel none of us want to stomach.

Also also for sure, for SURE – I really like to fuck. I really want to fuck. I think about it, like, all the time. And I think about wanting to want it. I think about how I’m seen, how I’m perceived by the world around me; how my clothing choices, my aesthetic choices, are all in some way geared to say “this guy wants to fuck”, but so much more truthfully – “this guy wants you to put on him every single ugly idea you’ve ever consciously or unconsciously had about who or what gets to be desirable, who gets to be wanted, and this guy wants to blow them all into incomprehensibility, and then this guy wants to blow you (with your consent), probably.” 

And I think about how my entire existence pivots around this resistance. About how this thing – wanting to be wanted, translates to my existence as an artist, as a friend, a collaborator, a human. 

Which perhaps leads me to thinking that after all this time as an artist… maybe, next to a collaborator as generous and talented and rigorous as Phoebe, sharpening her own axes to grind around sex and desire, maybe inside of this incredibly intimate and vulnerable creative relationship I have found myself in, maybe now is as good a time as any to finally reckon with my own existence and identity inside of this world I have found myself in.

Phoebe Sullivan squats in the front corner of the frame, with her legs turned out and her wrists resting on her open knees, her fingers splayed. She wears a gleaming black catsuit, accessorised with red gloves, nipple guards and spangly hot pants. In the background Joe Lui poses with his guitar on one shoulder.
Phoebe Sullivan and Joe Lui are asking why we want what we want in their new work ‘The Ugly’. Photo: Daniel Grant

Phoebe Sullivan:

November 2017
I meet with a man in Shibuya, Tokyo. We are trying to book a room in a Love Hotel; accommodation specifically designed for people to meet and have sex. Our Japanese is embarrassingly bad, and the receptionist can tell from behind the frosted glass that we are foreigners. We are politely asked to leave. A man, also leaving the hotel, sees us and asks if we wanted a room. He then turns back to speak with the receptionist. He looks at the man I’m with and asks, “two hours? No, three. You’ll want three.” We pay in cash and make our way up to the room. We leave three hours later. 

January 2014
I arrive in Boorloo for the first time. My student accommodation didn’t deliver my bed linen in time, so that night I sleep sandwiched between my mattress and my mattress protector. I cry myself to sleep thinking of home. 

February 2016
I am in a FRINGE WORLD tent watching a drag king perform to INXS, “Need You Tonight”. I think, that looks really fun.

~ 2006
Thomas Adcock calls me a slut during lunch after I beat him in a handball rally. 

January 2018
I am watching a YouTube video with 1.2 million views. The video is of a burlesque act performed by Raquel Reid. I have never seen a female body so perfect. I search “burlesque classes Perth”, and get a few hits. I look at studio locations and semester fees, and tell myself that it’s too far away to get to by bus, or too expensive. I close my laptop. 

~ 2012
My second-boyfriend-ever pauses in between making out with me to ask if I want to have sex. I want to, but I say no. 

May 2019
I talk to Renée Newman about wanting to make a show about desire. Something to do with Love Hotels blah blah blah. 

February 2020
I am introduced to Bobby Russell (thanks to Joe).

August 2021
Joe and I are eating brisket at Frank’s Barbeque Texas Smokehouse and I ask if he’s planning on applying to Summer Nights, The Blue Room Theatre’s summer performance season. He says he’d like to, and asks if I’d be interested in doing something with him. I mention I’ve always wanted to get into burlesque. He says he’s been wanting to write his own music. He says, “I could see a show where I play music on one side of the stage, and you take your clothes off on the other.” We agree that those two things really belong together. A few weeks later we are fangirling over Amia Srinivasan’s article, “The Right To Sex”, published in 2018, questioning the forces that shape our sexual desires. And the rest is The Ugly.  

There are so many significant and insignificant life events that have led me to this work: A longing to make art that is equally critical of myself as well as the conversations I want to have. A fear of getting older and not fully understanding how to own my sexuality. A desire to remain visible in the sector.

All of it.

I have found so much of myself in this show, that I forget Joe and I have only been making it for the last two months. It feels like I have been writing it my whole life. I hope this work continues far beyond its Summer Nights’ season. And I hope, this particular instalment has you thinking about the similarities in your life.

The Ugly plays The Blue Room Theatre, 8-12 February 2022, as part of Summer Nights.

Pictured top are Joe Lui and Phoebe Sullivan. Photo: Daniel Grant

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