Portraying fear and multiculturalism in the Australian suburbs

An Australian playwright talks about what he saw in the suburbs that prompted him to write his first play titled Little Borders:

Several years ago, my family home in Adelaide was knocked down and rebuilt. The suburb was once a new development, built onto what had originally been swampland. Over the years, the house had begun to sink; the kitchen was slightly lower than the adjacent rooms, and a crack ran through the length of the ceiling. Despite the suburb’s swampy foundations, our street was pristine. It was quiet, lined with trees, and curved alongside a man-made lake. People jogged. They walked their dogs. They smiled at strangers.

While our family home was being rebuilt, we moved to a rental property in a nearby suburb. The house was on a main road. We woke up at night to the sound of motorists loudly hammering their horns. My brother and I started walking to the corner store barefoot, in board shorts, to buy frozen peas and schnitzels.

We came home one day to find the house across the street sealed off by police tape, with hazmat-suited officers wandering in and out. The same prostitute kept making conversation with me at the bus stop. She was very friendly-and liked that I was half-Maltese, as she herself was born in Greece and was planning to return there later that year – but it was still a bizarre culture shock.

When we finally moved back to our rebuilt home, I remained fascinated with the idea of suburbs that are geographically close, but socioeconomically divided. I overheard our smiling, jogging, dog-walking neighbours talking in racially incensed language about the new residents of the housing commission homes down the road, reminding each other to lock their cars at night.

At the same time, both major political parties were battling it out over the issue of asylum seekers, with each leader attempting to court votes by promising a stronger brand of xenophobia than their opponent. From both sides, the message was clear: Boat People are approaching fast, they pose a threat to our national security, and the only rational response is mass panic.

I became interested in exploring how these notions of class difference and fear of outsiders clashed with the image of Australia as an egalitarian nation that celebrates its multiculturalism. At some point in my research, I struck upon the idea of setting the play in a gated community, which gave these issues potency, etching them into the physical world of the play. It was from this point that Little Borders really started to take shape.

This sounds like it could be an interesting play. I wonder how much it will be able to escape common cliches about suburban life that have been bandied about around in the United States since the 1950s.

The description of the suburbs quoted above does hint at the changes that American (and apparently Australian?) suburbs have experienced in recent years: they are becoming more diverse in terms of race and ethnicity as well as social class. Of course, there has been an uptick in gated communities as some suburban residents don’t look on these changes fondly and there are still profound divisions between certain suburbs.

A question: are there any plays that see suburbs as good places? For example, you could flip the above story a bit and suggest that suburbs that were once closed off to “others” are now slowly opening up which means new opportunities for some. The suburbs will likely never be ideal but there have been some notable changes in recent years.

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