‘There will be doors that will not open’: Why Shakira Clanton will never give up Loading 3rd party ad content Loading 3rd party ad content Loading 3rd party ad content Loading 3rd party ad content

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By Nick Galvin

Talking to Shakira Clanton about her career and her upcoming autobiographical show, Still, I Rise, two things leap out.

First, Clanton laughs. A lot. Even when the conversation takes a sombre turn, which it often does when her experience of racism and sexism comes up, her gale-force laugh is never far away.

And secondly, all roads lead back to family, and particularly, her mother Gningala Yarran-Mark, who single-handedly raised Shakira and her four sisters in Perth in the absence of her father, an African-American and Native American Indian man from Alabama.

“You don’t put yourself in a box’: actor Shakira Clanton.

“You don’t put yourself in a box’: actor Shakira Clanton.Credit:Kate Geraghty

Inevitably, Still, I Rise, a collaboration with cellist Jeremi Campese, draws heavily on the wisdom and strength of her mother.

“She basically taught us not to give up,” says Clanton, a Wongi, Yamatji, Nyoonga and Gitja woman. “As a woman in Australia and as a black woman in Australia and as an Indigenous woman in Australia there will be doors that will not open and you just have to find another way to get through it and keep on going. It’s been instilled into my sisters and I that you don’t put yourself in a box because society sees you as such-and-such. You’re more than that.”

Some of Clanton’s earliest memories of prejudice come from when she was just seven and attending her Perth primary school.

“This little girl didn’t want to sit next to me because she thought … there was something wrong with me because I’m black,” she says. “I thought I was beautiful and now I had been told I was ugly and I was this and that because of the colour of my skin.

“I went home crying to my mother and she just has this way of making the whole world feel safer and better.

“I’ve seen my mum break down, too, but she has just had to get up because there is no one else. She gets it from her mother and she got it from her mother. I think all women regardless of race have embedded in them this strength that they pull out of nowhere because they have to. I see it as a warrior strength. She puts on a mask and she puts on the armour but she still gets hurt.”

Clanton initially wanted a career as a singer – “but I’m too bloody nervous” – then she discovered acting and “fell in love with it”.

After a spell at the Aboriginal Centre of Performing Arts in Brisbane she graduated from NIDA in 2015. Since then she has steadily been in demand for roles on stage and screen and took part in a 2016 SBS documentary, The Truth About Racism, that examined the way people think about racism using neuroscience.

Clanton agrees Indigenous performers now are more visible than ever – she lists artists including Deborah Mailman, Ursula Yovich and Miranda Tapsell as among her inspirations – but believes there is still a long way to go.

“I think we are placing everyone in this ‘people of colour’ box when every woman of colour has her own unique story and journey,” she says. “I think we need to move past the idea that there can only be one kind of Indigenous woman. There are so many uniquely incredible and talented Indigenous artists whose voices have yet to be heard.”

Among those talented artists who are being heard is Clanton’s twin Shareena, also an actor, who recently made headlines with accusations of racism on the set of long-running soap Neighbours.

Shareena will be in the audience this weekend, which, says Clanton, will be extra pressure.

“I’m nervous already but my twin will give me shit if it’s not good,” she says.

And beyond the family critique, she has a modest ambition for what the audience will get from her life story.

“I hope it will be a stepping stone for others to follow and will allow them to tell their stories and their truth,” she says. “I hope people come and share and have a laugh and take what they will from it.”

Still, I Rise is at Darlinghurst Theatre Company until May 9.

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