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Talking about our cultural identity doesn’t need to be a drag, according to La Nonna

Prompted by a speech given by an Indigenous matriarch at a student environmental conference, Melbourne based writer, performer and activist Samuel Dariol cast his gaze for the first time at his cultural ancestry and, specifically, at the lives and experiences of his grandmothers. In his sell-out Melbourne Fringe culinary drag cabaret, La Nonna, Dariol, over dinner, engages in a discussion of how his fraternal Sicilian-Australian nonna’s migrant story mirrors his own journey in coming to terms with his sexuality. 

Samuel Dariol stars in La Nonna | photo by James Etheridge

As a third generation Australian and refugee advocate, Dariol reflects upon national and cultural identity more than most. While the Indigenous peoples who populated our vast continent for over 40,000 years had intricate laws and customs which placed respect for community and elders at the forefront, that all began to change when the British arrived. Dariol believes that Australian attitudes towards our seniors is, to some extent, shaped by the foundational traumas of our nation’s birth.

“180 years ago some British people came here and just laid claim to a land that already had people living here. I think there’s something in the Australian psyche that’s scared to look back and to ask questions and hear stories of the past because there’s a fear about what we might uncover.”

In La Nonna, Dariol seeks to openly discuss taboos, but in manner that is as welcoming as a home cooked dinner. Throughout the performance, between renditions of songs by Tina Arena, Natalie Imbruglia and Ariana Grande, Dariol, while dressed as his nonna, cooks up a storm then invites the audience to eat. He believes that, like respect for elders, the fundamental communal practice of coming together for a meal has been lost to some extent in Australian culture.

Samuel Dariol stars in La Nonna | photo by James Etheridge

“I think there’s a really human aspect to the preparation and sharing of food that’s inherently about the collective, right? You’re part of the group enjoying a meal.” 

“I think the process of sitting at a table and eating with someone is a real unifying force.”

– Samuel Dariol

La Nonna is a work that seeks to emphasise the ways in which we are similar, rather than accentuating our differences. When Samuel came out about his sexuality to his nonna, she understood which, given the conservative values that are often held by Italian immigrants from her era, may appear surprising. After hearing of nonna’s experiences upon arriving in Australia, though, her empathy and tolerance is readily comprehensible, as Sam explains.

“She herself had her first marriage break down, my dad’s dad left Australia pretty soon after arriving and my nonna was left single in Australia for a number of years before remarrying and that marriage ended so she hasn’t lived a typical life or the life that was expected of her and I think that meant that she had a greater level of empathy, I think, when I did come out.” 

“I think you’re forced to face this image of yourself that’s not the ideal that you’re told that you should be trying to achieve and I think that has a lot of resonance for queer experience as well because there was a process for me and I’ve heard others talk about being forced to reconcile this image of yourself that you might not want or might not be sanctioned by the society around you.”

For Dariol, then, La Nonna is a celebration of who he is now and where he is come from and an invitation for audiences to engage in a similar exploration of their identity, 

La Nonna plays The Rattlesnake Saloon from 26 to 29 September as part of the Melbourne Fringe.

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