“You know we belong together, you and I forever and ever.”

These lyrics have rung in Australian Households since Home and Away’s inception in 1988. It was also the sentiment of Julia Hales, Finn O’Branagáin and Clare Watson’s collaborative account of Julia’s experiences as a daughter, actor, dreamer, and a person with Down syndrome. But the message that weaves its way throughout her story is deeper than love between two lovers; it’s the bond of a mother and her unborn infant, the recognition from yourself and others that demands to be felt when society brands you “different” and “other”—even the banter between siblings is an embodiment of love.

These forms of love and more, came together to tell the story of Julia Hales, a 38-year-old woman with a dream, embracing the many gifts she was given. Brought to us by the Perth Festival, and produced by the Black Swan State Theatre Company, You Know We Belong Together is a narration, dance, and film of Julia’s journey.

Julia plays out her dream of being the first down syndrome cast member of Home and Away in a role she’d created for herself. Living vicariously through the journey of her Summer Bay alter ego and rehashing her own lived experiences, we were invited to explore love through the eyes of people in the community with a higher level of emotional intelligence than most.

Beginning in her home, Julia took us on a journey of a girl with a dream, to a woman with a multitude of accomplishments.

“This is my home. I can dance around in my bedroom, watch re-runs of Home and Away when I want. I can even eat food in my lap,” she gloated to us all.

“This often shocks people. They look at me and think, ‘Why is she alone? Doesn’t she need someone to help her with that?’

The room became subdued by Julia’s simple words, as these seemingly innocuous questions resonated deeply with many of us.

Inviting her friend Lauren Marchbank to the stage, we were made to check in with ourselves and recall a time when we made someone feel othered. A video of a day in the life of Lauren showed us how society has taught us to put anyone ‘different’ under a microscope and “watch as if there was some kind of show to see.” Lauren danced in fluid motions across the stage—a show we know she wanted us to watch.

The stage light shone on those rarely pictured in the limelight as they danced, painted and embraced. Love reached to all corners of the Heath Ledger Theatre, and the aspirations and voices of a community were heard.

Transporting us back to high school human biology, Julia began testing our knowledge of genetics.

“Do you know how many chromosomes you have, how many a mosquito has, and how many a horse has? Well you have 46, and people like Lauren and I have 47, so one extra than you,” she said.

The self-love that emanated from this woman did not come about without struggle. Countless times in her life she questioned why she had been born the way she had, and if she could give Down syndrome away. I was humbled, hearing how she—like any young woman—had considered plastic surgery to change how she was intended to be on this planet. Instead she raised the question: why was she born into a world who labelled her as ‘disabled’, when she was completely able to feel love, to think for herself, and to assimilate into society like any human being?

Image credit: Black Swan Theatre Company

 

Recalling this lesson on the drive home, my friend Sarah pointed to the unassailable amount of love Julia had for herself.

“As a person who has been painted as, not only other, but less than, I am awestruck at how much love she has for herself,” she said.

We both sat in sober thought, contemplating the more menial body image insecurities we fight daily. Something humans with varying numbers of chromosomes and genetic differences seemingly wage their own personal battles against.

We also spoke about how ignorant we had been, thinking certain human experiences like sex, marriage, childbirth belonged exclusively to those deemed “normal” by society. An important conversation was generated when we reflected on the shared trials and tribulations of all people.

Sarah put it perfectly: “You could place actors in the chairs of all those interview subjects and the words would be just as relatable because we all struggle the same struggles,” she said.

You Know We Belong Together is a not just a story of one woman trying to have a relationship with a part of herself in a society that ostracises that very part of her. Rather it’s a story that means lots of different things to many. It will move you, sober you, inform you, and shake you. It’s a story that demands to be loved and accepted, as does every human being on this planet.

 

You Know We Belong Together is showing at the Heath Ledger Theatre until Sunday 31 March.