YIRRAMBOI Festival is Australia’s only First Nations-led arts festival, featuring 100+ events from 250+ creatives. Every two years, YIRRAMBOI Festival fills the city of Melbourne in May with an exciting program of free and low-cost events across music, dance, theatre, film, exhibitions, markets, fashion parades, family-friendly events, talks and symposiums, at more than 25 different venues.

Ngarngk; Giver of Life is one of the festival’s productions and opens at  La Mama Theatre this week. Noongar actor and writer, Carissa Lee (TV’s House Husbands, Sammy J Show, and stage productions, Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, Andrew Bovell’s Holy Day), is in the show and

describes the significance of the piece a poignant story for Mob, because, she says, they know how it is to struggle against non-Indigenous people in power, and will no doubt recognise the cultural and emotional strain it can have on us and our families.  “I think it’s significant to a non-Indigenous audience because this is an opportunity to see how unfair the system can be to us, and to see how Indigenous families often have to navigate that,” she says. “Also a chance to see how funny we are, because blackfulla humour is the best.”

Initially approached by Ilbijerri Theatre Company back in 2019 to take part in early development readings of this play, Lee is grateful for her continual  involvement throughout the process until its full staging.

Ngarngk–meaning ‘giver of life’ in the Nyoongar language– puts women at the front in a powerful story about black motherhood and returning to traditional practices. Will the Tannin family survive the fight, or will the system win again? Nyoongar writer NazAree Dickerson hits hard with this matriarchal story, championing the strength and resilience of her foremothers.

Lee plays Sally Tannin in Dickerson’s  debut work as a playwright. She’s Missy’s mum (Missy is played by Kristel Kickett) and Cherie’s daughter (Cherie is played by Aunty Denise Kickett). Sally has had to deal with some trauma throughout her life from being taken from her mother, and having her daughter taken from her. Although she maintains a connection with Missy, her relationship with Cherie is quite strained, and there’s a healing that needs to happen for them to help Missy bring her baby into the world.

The play’s main theme deals with how First Nations families are having to navigate systems to be able to conduct cultural practices and keep their families together. “It touches on the importance of family and trying to overcome intergenerational trauma, and to try and stop traumatic events from happening again,” says Lee.

An inspiring story of pluck and grit, Ngarngk; Giver of Life, is just one of the many celebrations to be found within the Yirramboi Festival which lee describes as a wonderful time when First Nations performers – sometimes from different countries – come together to present their work. “There are plays, dances, music events. It’s a chance for mob to see different shows that are about us for a change, and also a great opportunity for the non-Indigenous community to see Indigenous-led productions,” she says.

Lee is well known for her work on the small screen as well as her work on the stage, and says that both are liked equally although they’re really different from each other. “In film and TV you get to play with more subtle performances, which I really like,” she says. “In theatre, everything’s a lot bigger, and you get to be really present with an audience and the people you’re on stage with. I often feel like I sit more comfortably in film, however theatre feels more like live storytelling, which is a lovely feeling.”

As far as her work preference, Lee loves getting to play characters who are complex, who people don’t always understand. “I played Charles Manson in a retelling of The Bacchae back before Covid, which was such a treat as an actor, even though I was definitely ready to let that one go when I was done!” she says. Lee is also drawn to stories that have the opportunity to teach people something. “I’ve recently discovered that I really love performing in comedy, having been in a couple of episodes of the SammyJ show, and getting to explore this character in Ngarngk. ”

Lee’s influences and inspirations are many, and so  settling on the definitive ‘one’  is difficult. However, Lee admits, Leah Purcell is definitely someone she’s admired for a long time because she’s a great actor and writes amazing characters. “Elisabeth Moss is fantastic, Viola Davis is probably my biggest hero. Both Moss and Davis take on roles with such honesty, I find that really inspiring and brave.”

The dark year of Covid affected many but Lee considers herself lucky because she was able to work from home.  However, like almost all of us, she admits to hating being separated from family and friends. “There were acting jobs via Zoom, which was bizarre and kind of fun,” she says. “I met so many new people this way! I spent most of the time working and finishing up my thesis.”

Ngarngk; Giver of Life explores the idea that there is no greater force than a mother with a fight. She will take the risks–even against a world that has pushed her aside–to protect her family.

Says Lee, “This is a really important story that everyone needs to see. You know when people say that you shouldn’t judge others or make assumptions about them, because you don’t know what they’ve gone through? Well, this play really gives insight into what cultural and emotional loads we have to carry as First Nations people, struggling against a system that essentially wants us to fail. It’s a great show to bring a family member along to, because the importance of coming together as family during moments of adversity is a huge theme in this play. And we promise we’ll make you laugh a bit, too.”

Ngarngk; Giver of Life

May 9 – 14

Ngarngk; Giver of Life

The YIRRAMBOI Festival runs from May 6-16, 2021. Program out now. Tickets to Ngarngk; Giver of Life, can be purchased here: https://yirramboi.com.au/https://yirramboi.com.au/events/ngarngk-giver-of-life/

Rehearsal Images: Candice Lorrae