'In Between Two' uncovers the intricacy of growing up a mixed race Australian in the '90s

The art of hip hop is undeniably a flexible tool. In its very sparseness, the lack of instrumentation necessary to creating rhymes and beats, also lies the potential for taking it in myriad different directions when viewed with the right eye.

Joel Ma and James Mangohig have used their background in hip hop to explore a unique direction with their show In Between Two, a stage show which sees them delve into their respective diasporic histories via a mixture of storytelling, music and family photos. It traces their families’ near history and interweaves these tales with ones of their own experiences of growing up mixed race in Australia during the '90s. Speaking from a car somewhere near the border of Victoria and South Australia with Mangohig at the wheel, Ma explains how the show’s seed was planted during various late night, post-show conversations from their time playing in TZU together.

“We'd often find ourselves at 4am over a kebab on tour talking about our families and the commonalities of how we grew up. Both of our fathers are Asian and there were lots of points we really bonded on about being mixed race and growing up in the '90s, even though he grew up in an ultra-religious family and I grew up in a fairly bohemian hippy family.”

It wasn’t until after the break up of TZU that the idea came to fruition after the two were asked by the organisers of Darwin Festival to put together a show with a difference.

“We had a chat and I told him about this show I saw as a kid by a guy called William Yang, a photographer and storyteller who used to do these one-man storytelling shows," Ma says. "I saw one when I was about 13 and it really affected me and stayed with me, particularly because he spoke a lot about growing up in part of Queensland in the '40s and '50s. So I said, ‘Hey man, we should do a show where we mix our music with stories about our families and show photos of the people we're talking about'.”

That first show was seen by cultural powerhouse Annette Shun Wah, who quickly realised the show’s potential and contacted the pair about developing it further. Serendipitously she was also working with William Yang at the time and was quick to bring him aboard. In Between Two's eventual development led to Mangohig and Ma delving into three generations of family history.

“We really did our research in terms of finding amazing photos, which we've blown up to use as props on stage for the stories we're telling. We interviewed our families, revealing all these classic immigrant stories of how our families ended up in Australia, but interspersed with our songs and our stories. The whole show becomes a pretty intimate telling of a family lineage in a way.”

Shun Wah and Yang were invaluable in helping pare down this telling into a linear, show-length form, and the duo’s familiarity with hip hop form was also put to good use.

“Because we come from a background of hip hop, we try to incorporate the idea of using our family stories like samples and telling our story on top of those samples. You can't really do justice to a life in a show, but you can do justice to a story and as the writers of the show we both know we're dealing with really precious resources," Ma says.

"We ended up going deep in some places, but the show is also quite funny because that's the nature of James' and mine's friendship. If you were to condense it, I guess the show is an intensely fun and deep conversation between two old friends and how that friendship has blossomed and survived.”

While the show might be intensely personal, through these particular family stories it also speaks to more universal truths about growing up ‘In Between Two’.

“It represents an Australian story which, when we were growing up, we never saw. The classic Australian story rarely incorporates the Asian or the mixed race experience and it definitely feels like when I was growing up there was no one like me on the TV or on stage. When kids from minorities come to the show they've said crazy personal stuff to us afterwards, sharing their stories. I even had a kid saying ‘I thought I was the only one’ – that's heavy.”

In Between Two comes to Sydney's Lennox Theatre from Thursday March 28 to Saturday March 30. Grab your tickets via the Riverside Parramatta website.