Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Waters, Light, the Power of Theater--For Georgia

I  write and live surrounded by much beauty, moments touched by light, here in 4 Fitzgibbon Avenue.
Now I live much closer to the ground, down from the 13 floors of 215 West Broadway.
From our plantings, hands deep in the soil, comes these living things, scallions that snap green, beets still raw from their home in the earth. The colors of my life now.
Yasmin Tambiah and I are finishing up our work on the Lesbians and Exile special issue for Sinister Wisdom. In the sun, so bright with hope, I read and read of journeys of displacement, of shifting senses of self, of thinking trying to make sense of new positionings. And I am as grateful to these words as I am to the precious sun lit light that makes life possible.
Along the banks of the Yarra, the brown river that flows through Melbourne, La Professoressa and our Cello take in the old old flow, wondering at all it has seen from the times before Invasion until now, when the first walkers of its lands, still ask, where now is our place by the Yarra, our dreams of possibilities. Old stones, old water, worn banks, mourning times and struggle times, so simple the flow of rivers, so huge in their holding of our histories. "My soul has grown deep like the rivers," sang Langston Hughes, the rivers of once my land, now yours.
In Sydney, we gaze upon the European starting place here in this land, the harbour, filled with iconic images of my new home, always a reminder that on one fateful morning, an old people gazed upon a new one, and in the sails saw the history of loss.
On the ferry to Manly Beach we pass the Heads, the opening to the sea, the waters that carried the new history to this island home of so many for so long--even though to European eyes, the original peoples were invisible; an empty land, they said, they found.
Sweet William  (Luke Carroll) speaking with his son, played by James Slee

On a stormy night in Sydney, we go to the Belvoir Theater in the Surrey Hills neighborhood of Sydney to see a new production of "The Cake Man," Robert Merrit's pioneer play about the "unseen" first people of this country. A joint production of the standing Belvoir theater ensemble and the Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, Australia's leading Aboriginal theater group, the play is just beginning its Sydney run.

"Back in the early 1970s, a group of pioneering indigenous theatermakers occupied a dilapidated terrace in Redfern and started the National Black Theater. The first full-length play they staged was Robert J. Merritt's 'The Cake Man.' A droll examination of white paternalism from a black point of view, Merritt's play kicked off a renaissance of art and performance that laid the foundations of contemporary indigenous theater."

After climbing up a steep hill in the pelting rain, we rush into the crowded theater, filled with damp excited theater goers. Down a few steps, and we find some seats and wait for the curtain time. More and more people, young dashing ones, energized couples, interestingly dressed older ones sipping their wines and beer, the place is filled. Much like a successful off Broadway launch it feels to me. Then the bell announcing it is time to go to seating, but it is too early for the stated starting time of "The Cake Man." Wow, I say to Di--this is really a wonderful turnout. People start rushing up the steps; a young man announces seating for "Hamlet" has begun. It is then that I discover this is a two venue theater--upstairs is the larger, more mainstream productions. The lobby empties out at a furious pace.A few of us are left waiting, and I get a sinking feeling.

"'The Cake Man is at once straightforward and complex. It is about the small details of life in a changing world. Jumping off effortlessly from a pre-invasion idyll to the hard scrabble of modern life on a mission in Western New South Wales, Merrit's virtuosic play pings with closely observed portraits of people doing what they have to do to get by. Tucked away inside it is an account of the roots of despair and of the beautiful means of overcoming it."

Once again the bell summons us, and we go further down deeper into the building's core and enter a small theater, with wooden rows serving for seats. Perhaps forty of us now have filled the space. Company members are there laying out the perimeters of the stage with white chalk, small black dolls sit on the floor, an actor walks to the performing space from the audience, Luke Carroll, who will hold us in his hands for the rest of the performance as Sweet William, the Black man who lunges against the confines of his life, who bursts with love for his wife, Ruby, and his son, lovingly called Pumpkinhead. See this play if you can. Sit and hear Sweet William turn to us and ask, "what do you want from me? What do you want me to be?" All of us sitting in that place as if we are in a small boat and can't escape our histories--those of us of the conquering class know, there are no answers that will save the indigenous dream of ownership of their lives, so complete is the rule of colonizing power. I think now of all those others sitting in the audience above us, listening to the Prince of Denmark looking into a similarly darkened space and asking his now so known existential question--to be or not to be, even in his despair, in total self ownership. When will the voice below the known histories, when will the stark and so clear voice of Sweet William pierce our cultural norms, "What do you want from me," as if we would give an answer that would end his dispossession. As if some lucidity behind our brutality would make all clear, allow his world to stand free and sweet as his love for Ruby and his son.

Performers: Sweet William, Luke Carroll; Civilian/Mr Peterson, Oscar Redding; Priest/Mission Inspector, George Shevtsov; Pumpkinhead, James Slee; Soldier/Mission Manager, Tim Solly; Ruby, Irma Woods

When the play ended,  I sat thinking of Lorraine Hansberry, and her portrait of a Black-American family trying so desperately to do things the right way, I thought of Georgia, as if she was sitting there beside us, this is the theater that gave her life and I think, the writer victoriously found his way to make himself heard above the din of invisibility..

"Robert J. Merritt watched his first opening night under police guard: he was an inmate of Long Bay at the time."

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