This month, as part of the Sydney Festival, Belvoir has hosted two works, both having their Sydney premiere and offering local audiences fascinating insights into Torres Strait Islander culture. The first of these works, My Name is Jimi, involved the family of actor Jimi Bani sharing stories and traditions, as part of an ongoing imperative of cultural preservation. The second, My Urrwai, a one-woman show performed by Rockhampton-born Ghenoa Gela, arrived at the Downstairs Theatre last weekend and, similarly, is a personal revelation of experience of culture of the Torres Strait Islands.
Now Sydney-based, Gela is an artist with remarkable talent. She’s a dancer (a graduate of NAISDA College) and an award-winning choreographer, highly skilled in both traditional and contemporary dance styles. She’s also a stand-up comedian, who took out the national Deadly Funny competition at the 2017 Melbourne International Comedy Festival. In recent times, she’s travelled the country (and to Edinburgh) with the smash-hit, Helpmann Award-winning cabaret, Hot Brown Honey, and has performed in Force Majeure’s You Animal, You alongside Heather Mitchell at Carriageworks.
Directed by Rachael Maza, My Urrwai not only offers glimpses into the culture of the Torres Strait Islands, but a window into Gela as a person and the influences from both her traditional and contemporary Australian communities that have shaped the woman she is. After opening the piece with a traditional dance, we see Gela performing a ballet warm-up while reciting the chapters of both testaments of the Bible in chronological order. It’s a highly effective means of conveying her anglicisation with the influence of Christianity from an early age. There’s a nod to the contemporary western music of the 1990s that helped to cement her interest in dance (particularly impressive is Gela’s perfect recreation of the choreography from Janet Jackson’s iconic 1993 music video for ‘If’.) But then there’s also pathos, when Gela recalls starting school and her teacher insisting upon an English pronunciation of her first name. This has consequences later on, when she visits family and country and is alienated because of the way she introduces herself.
Over 65 minutes, My Urrwai captures a series of high and low points in Gela’s life. There’s an excerpt from the stand-up routine that took her to honours last year in Deadly Funny, and there are frequent demonstrations of her dancing prowess (the evocative movement choreographed together with Force Majeure’s founding artistic director, Kate Champion, who has also taken on dramaturgical responsibilities here). But then there is also reflection on some of the tougher times, including her struggle to tell family members about her sexuality, as well as salient reminders of ongoing discrimination she faces as an Indigenous Australian (a recollection of a recent encounter with police officers at Sydney’s Town Hall station is especially disturbing). These instances underscore the push and pull of conflicting cultures, and the struggle to negotiate a place in the world.
Maza’s direction ensures wonderful fluidity as we move from one episode in Gela’s life to the next, and marries the drama together with the piece’s lighter moments beautifully. The pace is excellent, allowing time for pause. Ania Reynolds’ compositions gently add to the impact of the work, while Niklas Pajanti’s thoughtful lighting choices achieve the same.
At the end of this short piece, we walk away having experienced an absorbing portrait of Gela that affords us the chance to attempt to walk in the shoes of someone from a culture that white Australia knows little about, and to be provided that opportunity by a woman who so proudly embraces those roots.
MY URRWAI – SEASON DETAILS
Dates: Playing now until 4 February, 2018
Venue: Downstairs Theatre, Belvoir (25 Belvoir Street, Surry Hills)
Tickets: belvoir.com.au or by phone on 02 9699 3444