When I think of going to a spoken word event, what usually pops to mind is a mic, a voice, and some floral poetic language. This usually culminates in either an inspiring and uplifting call to action or a realisation of how insignificant human life really is at times. I also often imagine low lights, generally a spot, and a single, mystical looking figure dressed in black speaking at me (usually at me, sometimes to me, depending on the poet I guess).
What I don’t imagine, is VR headsets, partial nudity and witnessing the uncomfortable yet strangely sexual act of someone forcibly deep throating a print out of the entirety of the Wikipedia on China. Welcome to Roshelle Fong. I have seen this woman perform three times now and each time has left me with a strange and yet wonderful feeling that all is somehow complete fucked and simultaneously perfect in this world. Roshelle’s performance for Girls on Key was no different.
When I first arrived, I was disappointed to notice there was a cinema/bar happening in the room next door and we were squished into a tiny back room, enhancing my feelings that spoken word is often not given the stage it deserves in society. However, in honesty (and to the dismay of my ever eager critic), the sound didn’t overlap and the intimacy of that tiny room only worked to enhance the disturbing and yet alluring sensations I was about to experience.
Before Roshelle, Carmen Main shared a piece she had originally prepared for the Biscuits series set up by Ruckus. It set the tone up well with features such as the use of voice-over and props, in some way preparing us for what was to come. Carmen had mentioned it was something very different for her to try and I truly commend and respect her for stepping up and pushing boundaries into the world of performance art, and hope she continues to play with it further.
After a break, we were back for Roshelle’s set. Something Roshelle does absolutely astoundingly well is speaking in a voice/character of herself which feels so natural and real I never quite know if she is performing or just speaking truth. This pretty much sums up Roshelle as an artist. In many ways, she leaves me and audiences in a strangely uncomfortable “in between” place. One which often pushes our boundaries of social, ethical and emotionally “correct” ways of responding vs an instinctual response within us. She certainly did not fail to do that. Wow. In a spoken word scene which relies heavily on words and verbal imagery, Roshelle has no fear of bringing the physical and literal into the space and often not saying much herself at all.
At one point, she was deep in the throes of making out with a reflection of herself (and Donald Trump) whilst a rather awkward audience member stood right beside her holding the mirror quite unsure of what they should be doing with themselves. I love when the audience’s very comfortable role is challenged and we are made to actually work for what we get. Roshelle gave us this multiple times throughout the night. Her first piece of the evening, involved us being invited into a VR headset world and confronted concepts of identity, cultural and moral boundaries and the profundity of being able to see ourselves in our greatest enemy, all without taking herself or anything else in the world too seriously.
The spoken word element of Roshelle’s show was a beautiful mix of her own words live and pre-recorded, often digitised and robotic sounding voice-overs. There is a fantastic play on humour in the relationship between Roshelle and her voice-overs which are timed up to create whole conversations often creating the awkward, yet very real, social and cultural references I have mentioned. One subtle example of this was her pre-recorded voice-over’s way of regarding her, from mispronouncing her Chinese last name repeatedly to trying to sell Roshelle’s “Tongue” services to the audience.
Another of her pieces involved a graphic Porn site being projected onto the big screen in front of us. A cursor clicked onto “Asian Casting Couch” only to open a video of Roshelle applying for an “audition”. The video itself left me, and most of the audience, half laughing our asses off and half wanting to turn away and pretend we were not watching it so we didn’t have to deal with the awkward social and cultural discussion she was raising.
I could go on to talk further about skimpy lingerie and ball-gags, her epic topple off stage, blindfolded, in 8-inch thigh high PVC stilettos and the profound comments that she was able to make whilst not even uttering a word (She was literally wearing a ball gag). But to be honest, Roshelle Fong is a performer you need to see with your own eyes. She is not for the faint-hearted, and if you are wanting traditional floral poetics, dim lights and empowering call-to-action crescendo slam poems this is not the woman for you. However, if you want to have every part of your guts and minds twisted, challenged, absurdly aroused and yet also totally and utterly inspired then I recommend seeing her at any opportunity you get. I don’t say that lightly either, I’m a tough person to impress.
In my eyes, Roshelle Fong is one of Melbourne’s greatest gifts to spoken word and deserves an international audience.
[Photo by Brendan Bonsack]