The Influence

When Joel Ma was a teenager, his mother took him to see William Yang’s one-man show Sadness, and it changed his life. By Maddee Clark.

Joel Ma

William Yang and his performance of Sadness, and Joel Ma (inset).
William Yang and his performance of Sadness, and Joel Ma (inset).
Credit: Peter Elfes / William Yang / Queensland Art Gallery (above), Claudia Sangiorgi Dalimore (inset).

Joel Ma is a musician, artist and producer who is best known for his work rapping as Joelistics. Based in Melbourne, he was part of the alt-rap group TZU and is also a writer and lyricist. Joel co-wrote and performed the stage show In Between Two, which toured extensively across Australia. He has worked with internationally acclaimed artists such as Haiku Hands and Mo’Ju as a producer and co-writer and he continues to experiment with long-form musical works with Peril Symphony.

For The Influence he has chosen to discuss William Yang’s stage monologue Sadness, which premiered at Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, in 1992.

So your mum took you to see Sadness?

Yes. Mum had seen Sadness, and she really wanted me to see it. She knew it would have some significance for me. Mum’s white, Dad’s Chinese, and I’ve found much of my identity journey has come from Mum. We lived in China together, she studies Mandarin, and she has been very invested in involving me in Chinese culture. So she took me to see it when I was in year 10. I suspect we saw a fairly early version of the show, in 1992 or 1993. There’s a more well-known version made in 2003.

I’d never heard of William before then. I was a long-haired, disaffected kid who sold weed at high school. I was not across photographers for a start, or even local Sydney arts and culture. Mum knew she was planting seeds of discovery in me, removing me from 1980s-90s Balmain and saying that the world is bigger and there are more ways of thinking.

What was it like sitting in the audience for you?

There was probably a mix of pride and strength that it tapped into, but also an embarrassment. William Yang’s the same age as my dad, so I saw my dad’s story in his. I could relate to the racism, the feeling of being an outsider, both of which were elements of the show.

There’s a lot of provocative imagery of gay Sydney in the 1980s and I think I was not shocked, but I had raised eyebrows at least. In the 1990s there was a level of ambient homophobia and misogyny in the air and the show confronted a lot of that for me. That feeling when something pierces into you, and it moves stuff around, it’s not comfortable. A big part of the show is that a lot of William’s friends contract AIDS and then he photographs the changes in them. I can clearly remember the images of these young, beautiful, vital men in their prime. You see people who have been ravaged by the virus, and it’s intense. Those images stuck with me.

I was thinking today about how Sadness was a woke text before there was such a language for these things. My first period of creative work was all in the realm of Australian hip-hop, in a group called TZU. We tried in the early 2000s, in our way, to challenge and provoke the Australian cultural attitudes around racism and homophobia and misogyny. Now there’s a public discourse around racism in the arts, where in the 1990s those discussions weren’t happening in the same way. Before the arts and culture industries were looking to tick diversity boxes off, if you experienced racism and homophobia, you felt shame seeing your story represented or discussed. I also experimented with my sexuality. We’re probably the only hip-hop group in Australia where the two emcees have pashed. We were okay with that.

Again, in the lens of 2021, that’s normal. But at the time it was different. So I want you to know the show impacted my moral framework as much as it influenced me creatively.

I didn’t know until now that William Yang made theatre – I only knew his photographs.

Yes, he’s not an actor, he’s a photographer who decided to tell stories about his photos. When you see people who aren’t performers perform, there’s no question of authenticity. He was kind of moving through it in a natural way, and it became such an intimate experience. His performance style was disarming – really unsentimental, but not detached. It has also influenced how I think about performing to a room.

So you ended up working with him, some years later?

Yes, we did In Between Two when I was 34, so it was almost another 16-17 years between my first encounter with Sadness and working with William.

It was an influential piece to the point where I’d actually described it in detail, or my shreds of memory of it, to James Mangohig when we were putting together our spoken word show In Between Two. We wanted to make something in the same style, but instead of photos – or rather, to augment the photos – I wanted to work with music and have that be the medium we hang the thread of our family stories on.

We’d put on a show in Darwin, and [writer and producer] Annette Shun Wah happened to be in the audience and she approached us and asked if we’d work with her and develop the show. When I mentioned I’d based it on Sadness, she said William was her creative partner and he would work on it with us. So the first development we did with William and Annette as dramaturgs was to go to Annette’s place in Queensland on the Sunshine Coast. We spent a day with William and Annette just telling them our life stories. We would tell William our story and he would tell the bits which he latched onto back to us, and they became the parts we would hang the show on. As we were telling the stories I have this distinct memory of him just saying, “Joel! More tragedy! I need more tragedy from you!” Afterwards we felt like we had scraped the plaque off our souls.

The whole subtext of In Between Two is the idea of rebuilding memories. We understood that as a subjective act – it’s not truth you’re telling, but it’s your truth. Once you start to try and encompass family history in a logical, easy to follow way, you’re condensing so much. It’s like the family stories are this shattered porcelain vase and hold up one bit and say, this is a vase. It feels so inadequate. I don’t know how conscious it was, but seeing Sadness was also informative to help me realise it’s okay to choose your own adventure. You find what you can share and accept you’ll never do it the full justice, you just do the best you can.

There’s a lot to learn from that generation of people who survived HIV/AIDS in this regard, the relationship to memory and loss.

It’s a generational loss, an element of society which was wiped out. I don’t think we can fully understand it – the plays, films, music that didn’t get written. When I was talking with William yesterday I said to him, I wanted him to know, it was a small show but it’s echoed through generations: “I can’t thank you enough. You wouldn’t have known there was a kid in the audience you were affecting so much”. Benjamin Law called him a national treasure, and I really believe that. You don’t forget him.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on October 30, 2021 as "Joel Ma".

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