Postcard from Perth 34
Identity Theatre and the Politics of Place
Joe Lui’s Letters Home and Yirra Yaakin’s King Hit
It’s glorious spring weather in Perth and the wildflowers are in full bloom. It’s been a busy time for theatre too, and once again I’m back in rehearsals, so I’ve had to ration my outings in the interests of sanity (and the odd evening at home).
The last couple of weeks have almost felt like a mini-festival in and around the Cultural Centre. There’ve been two works of home-grown Aboriginal theatre: Yirra Yaakin’s King Hit staged under a marquee in the State Theatre Centre courtyard, and Big Hart’s Roebourne community extravaganza Hipbone Sticking Out in the Heath Ledger (and on its way to the Melbourne Festival). Meanwhile the Blue Room Season Two is in full swing, with local indie theatre legend Joe Lui’s solo show Letters Home finishing last week and two new theatre and dance-theatre shows opening this week; indie supergroup The Last Great Hunt have premiered their new multimedia show Falling Through Clouds at PICA; and Spare Parts Puppet Theatre have had simultaneous seasons of two new shows, with Farm at their home base in Fremantle for the school holidays (after an out-of-town season in Merredin where it was researched and developed) and Moominpappa at Sea at the WA Museum (also after a regional tour) as part of Awesome, the International Arts Festival for Bright Young Things, which took over various Cultural Centre venues last week. And finally two local contemporary dance works have been made and/or shown in close succession at the Studio Underground: Aimee Smith’s Borderline, and Danielle Micich’s new dance-theatre work Overexposed (also featuring yours truly and currently in rehearsals).
All in all, it’s enough to do any city (or reviewer) big or small anywhere proud. Back from a week’s break down south in Denmark enjoying the weather and wildflowers, I embarked on rehearsals the week before last and managed to take in Letters Home, King Hit, Mooninpappa at Sea, Farm and Falling Through Clouds. I’m going to attempt to summarize my experiences in two separate Postcards: this one focussing on Letters Home and King Hit – both of which deal in very different ways with issues of family and cultural identity – and the following one on the two Spare Parts shows and Falling Through Clouds, which all explored new territory in terms of puppetry and other forms of animation.
I had a hand in Letters Home as a dramaturg/mentor, so I can’t claim to review it with any degree of critical objectivity; but I will say that Joe is a remarkable multi-skilled artist and that for me this was perhaps at once his most courageous and accessible show to date. Although not usually seen an actor, this time he took the stage himself (as well as writing, directing and composing music/designing sound as usual, while handballing lighting design to Chris Donnelly) in order to perform a letter to his parents back in Singapore (having left as a student and remained in exile in order to avoid national service).
Joe has great charm as a natural performer, which is perhaps not surprising given the revelation that he had a previous life as a child-star in Singapore on a TV show aptly named ‘Kids in Power’ (footage of which was shown at the end); and the night I finally saw the show (after watching a few rehearsals early in the process) he had the audience eating out of his hand. Beyond the fun and games, though, there was an underlying sense of ritual to proceedings, as he alternately addressed us and his absent parents while preparing a traditional Chinese meal for them at a table set with two empty chairs. The immersive set by Cherish Marrington featured an endearing bird’s nest of Joe’s personal belongings – surmounted by a video screen discreetly showing relevant content (designed by Mia Holton) – with the stage and auditorium enclosed by wall-to-wall see-through plastic drapes.
Highest praise from me though goes to the script, which is a playful, witty, honest and moving meditation on culture, politics, art, science, sex, authoritarianism and filiation. Joe walks a fine line between mockery and pathos (for his parents and himself), and there are some toe-curling digs at ‘traditional’ Chinese culture and the impact of his parents’ stereotypical obsession with money and success at the expense of personal or emotional fulfilment. We’ve all been there, if perhaps not quite with the same wrenching twist of cultural separation and political exile. Most striking for me were the evocations of place in the quest for ‘home’: the skyscrapers and smog of Singapore, the clear starry skies of Perth, and The Blue Room Studio itself as the place where Joe has ‘remade’ himself through his work.
I mentioned at the outset the show’s accessibility as well as its courage, in comparison with Joe’s previous work. On reflection I think perhaps it’s the content that’s challenging rather than the form – or perhaps rather that it’s a more challenging exercise for Joe than it is for us. I wonder for example what it would be like to deconstruct culture and identity further by having Joe direct someone else as himself; perhaps someone who isn’t Chinese. There’s something strangely reinforcing about the exercise as it stands.
In any case, and in any form, I hope this show has a long life and gets to travel – albeit probably not to Singapore.
Reviewing King Hit presents a different set of challenges. I saw it on the last night, and its combined sense of event, audience, place and setting carried all before them. India Mehta’s tent-design in particular was a knockout, and the crowd was buzzing even before we entered (in my case, a lucky last-minute substitution landing me with a ringside seat in the middle of the front row, surrounded by family mob).
Co-written by Geoffrey Narkle and former Yirra Yaakin Artistic Director David Milroy (who directed the original production in 1997), the play tells the first half of Narkle’s life story: growing up on an Aboriginal reserve outside the Wheatbelt town of Narrogin south-west of Perth, being removed from his parents and raised on a Catholic mission in the aptly named town of Wandering, escaping and drifting through the perils of Northbridge, and joining a tent boxing troupe where he acquired the moniker of ‘The Barker Bulldog’, before finally being reunited with his mother. It’s a powerful story, and this production is directed with great flair by the company’s current director Kyle J. Morrison (who originally played the role of Geoffrey), with effective rough-theatre set and costumes by Mehta and lighting by Jenny Villa, vibrant guitar music by Clint Bracknell, fights elegantly directed by Andy Fraser, and an energetic cast of four led by Clarence Ryan with Maitland Schnaars, Karla Hart and Benj D’Addario playing multiple roles. The most moving aspect of the show dealt with the devastating long-term effects of being forcibly separated from their parents for a whole generation of children on their self-esteem and sense of identity, and in this regard the play pulled no punches: you can’t go home again.
In this context, to probe the limits of the script, staging or performances would be churlish (although the natural energy and charm of Clarence Ryan in the central role won me over completely) in the face of what was undeniably a great night out that evidently hit the spot for most of the audience. Nevertheless I couldn’t help wondering if something was missing, in a play ostensibly about the paradox of seeking self-respect on the tent-boxing circuit – namely, a real sense the ugliness and brutality of boxing, especially as a form of racially charged entertainment. As a nation, we tend to sentimentalize violence (especially in sport), and I’m not sure that its all-too-literal and even slightly clownish representation here altogether avoided this tendency. To be sure, the fights were skilfully staged and executed but they lacked the real horror that perhaps a more indirect or symbolic representation might bring. Perhaps the most disturbing spectacle was watching an audience of predominantly well-heeled white middle-class theatre patrons (plus a generous invite-list of company extended family) in the courtyard of the State Theatre Centre cheering and laughing (or relieving themselves of guilt) while watching Aboriginal people simulating punch-ups for our amusement.
As with Letters Home, I found myself thinking about the politics of place and its importance for identity (as signified by the Aboriginal term ‘country’). It seems to me that we’re all too ready to identify and differentiate ourselves and others in terms of culture, language, religion, tribe, family or skin; but whoever we are, we all live and work somewhere which profoundly shapes us and what we do. Unlike those other terms, place is no respecter of persons – it doesn’t discriminate between people in the way that people themselves do. I hasten to add that I’m not talking about nationality here; a nation is not a place, in the way that a continent or island, a forest or desert, a stretch of coast or river, a region, or even a city or town is. Nor am I necessarily talking about birthplace as opposed to a place you adopt, or that adopts you, as your home (in Joe Lui’s case, for example, Perth and The Blue Room Studio); although there’s no question that where you grow up, or spend a significant period of your life, deeply informs who you are. Belonging is a process that can’t be measured; it occurs internally.
The notion of place is also significant for theatre as an activity that always happens somewhere (a designated venue or site). In this regard, some spaces are more discriminatory than others (much like nations in this regard). In the case of King Hit, for instance, the tent provided a sense of inclusiveness that overcame some of the limitations of the courtyard while counteracting the social exclusiveness of the State Theatre Centre itself. I wondered what kind of impact a show like this might have in a tent at the Perth Royal Show (which coincidentally has also been on in Nedlands), or on a footy oval in Narrogin (perhaps during the annual Agricultural Fair) – or even at the ruined site of the former Wandering Mission. In each case, a different relationship between event and location would lead to a different social configuration between the performers and the audience. This isn’t a criticism of the work or its importance; but I wonder if there isn’t also a place for taking us (artists and audiences) a little further out of our comfort zones.
Beyond the politics of place or the aesthetics of violence and its representation, this raises broader questions for me about the relationship between theatre companies and their audiences, especially when those companies have an explicitly or implicitly designated cultural identity. To be sure, these questions apply no less to other ‘niche’ companies – whether art-form-designated (like Spare Parts Puppet Theatre) or audience-designated (like Barking Gecko as a company for young people) – than they do to culturally designated companies (like Yirra Yaakin). For that matter they also apply to ‘mainstage’ or ‘State’ theatre companies, which also implicitly ‘designate’ themselves, their audiences, productions and artists along class, demographic or aesthetic lines; it’s even arguably true for ‘indie’ or ‘fringe’ companies, artists and audiences. This isn’t to say that such companies shouldn’t exist or that we shouldn’t use such labels in order to brand them. It’s simply to suggest that we also need to look beyond the potential complacency that such feedback loops of mutual reinforcement risk settling into.
Since moving to Perth almost fourteen years ago, I’ve seen a lot of ‘Aboriginal theatre’ by various companies ‘telling Aboriginal stories’ (and even told by ‘Aboriginal artists’), but sometimes I’ve wondered what these phrases really mean. Much of this theatre has been about the past – emblematic life-stories, significant historical episodes – and most of it staged in white middle-class metropolitan venues (including the State Theatre Centre). Sometimes I chafe at the limits of designated ‘Aboriginal’ theatre and dance companies – and perhaps art centres, arts funding categories, prizes and awards. No doubt, they’ve all played – and continue to play – a vital role in giving Aboriginal people a voice and cultural representation; indeed their establishment is one of the signal achievements of the broader movement of multiculturalism since the early 1970s – a project like so many embarked on in that era that remains unfinished and is still continually contested. But beyond this I think there’s a bigger battle yet to be fought for non-culturally specific representation (and colour-blind casting) across our stages, screens and galleries. This involves a much more fundamental change in our ‘ways of seeing’ – perhaps for Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people alike.
We can pat ourselves on the back for not being racist, and even remove the term ‘race’ from our Constitution, but I think there’s still a danger in using terms like ‘culture’ to define ourselves in ways that are just as essentialist and potentially oppressive; this also applies to notions of language, tribe, religion, family or skin. To be sure, all these notions designate aspects of identity, whether fated, imposed or freely chosen; but they remain relative, contested and ultimately floating. The transformative power of theatre as a symbolic form of representation is that like no other art-form it can release us from the limits of our identities. Perhaps it’s time to move beyond identity-politics and identity-theatre by looking at the politics and performance of identity itself. In the act of symbolic exchange between performers and audience, the lineaments of a new kind of community can be traced, and perhaps even made real.