“The most aggravating aspect has been the perception of people in Australia that we’re taking the most obvious and easiest topic when that simply isn’t the case,” said Craig Quartermaine in a recent interview. The Aboriginal-Australian comedian isn’t lying. Race Off sees him tackle this most thorny of subjects with fellow Perth native Brendon Burns. That they shared a hometown, but were separated by oceans in terms of their upbringings is the root from which their many-branching examination of race springs.
Taking in race relations in Australia, white guilt, and the development of their own relationship, Race Off boldy goes where no double act has ever gone before. Morecambe and Wise they aren’t.
What is most refreshing about Race Off is that, in the best sense of the term, it feels like a perpetual work-in-progress. There’s a real dynamism between the two men, like they’re constantly re-writing and pushing each other to see what works. It’s necessary that the duo are adaptable enough to respond to different audiences and environments. As they point out, the rarified echo chamber of the overwhelmingly white Fringe is an entirely different context than in Perth, where the relationship between white and Aboriginal is infinitely more loaded and fraught.
Race Off is a thoroughly challenging hour for both the performers and the audience. Its evolution is possible to trace through Burns’ Dumb White Guy podcast, and he’s posted some embryonic versions of the show there. A comedian unafraid to pick apart his performances, he’s open about his own previous micro-displays of privilege, and he’s clearly having the time of his life. Always a live-wire, he seems nonetheless like a man rejuvenated; his enthusiasm boundless. Quartermaine is an affable, grounded counterpoint to his colleague’s ebullience. His final word on a story about the pair being pulled over by the Australian police is the most perfectly delivered punchline you’re likely to see at the Fringe. It encompasses incredulity, humour, and perhaps an ember of anger at white privilege being demonstrated in such close proximity.
Burns and Quartermaine are quick to highlight embarrassment caused by racial discomfiture. But there isn’t the slightest desire to preach, or point the finger at anyone; merely to invite the same level of self-examination they’ve undergone themselves. “You’re a decent human being,” the pair assure us in a rather audacious and ultimately uplifting end to a show that works on every level. A show likely to evolve throughout the run as they harvest more tales of awkward “woke” white guys to tell.