Ajak Kwai displays grace and courage during her performance of Of Cows, Women and War written by herself and co-writer Bagryana Popov. The piece is beautiful in its simplicity and is moving and evocative.
Her performance evokes her home country Sudan, her family and many aspects of her earlier life before she fled to Australia 14 years ago as a refugee. It is a one-hour piece where Kwai opens her heart to the audience, stating in a direct and unaffected manner her life as a child, the strong Dinka culture she still carries within her and the ravages of the civil war. We are taken gently into her world as she tells stories, some very funny and some terribly sad.
Stories like how cows are a curse to women in Sudan, how her cousin kept running and running until she was heard of no more. How most of her brothers, cousins, uncles and aunts have all lost their lives as a result of the Sudanese War. How marriage occurs in Sudan and how her auntie used nous to protect herself from harm. There were so many of them that were tenderly told. One very amusing one was her community’s massage ritual story where the young men lay naked accompanied by women who stand naked. The women are at pains to watch where they place their hands and the men need to ensure they do not ‘react’ in any way, shape or form. At the conclusion of the ritual, if a man has not reacted, he is filled with pride and is deemed an honourable man.
From the minute Kwai starts singing in her native tongue from off-stage we become entranced by her voice. The audience is immediately taken to African plains. Images of African dance and community gatherings are projected onto cloth in the middle of the stage held by bare trees either side. But by far the most effective aspect of the staging is the three-piece band that accompanies Kwai throughout. Simon Lewis on keyboard, Elliot Folvig on guitar and Kofi Kunkpe on percussion, all support and prove to be essential in taking us to the other side of the globe. Even though the piece’s destination is the other side of the globe, we realize that the humanity described to us by Kwai is universal and we need to take note of what is happening in places so far away from our very southern capital.
Kwai’s singing voice is haunting and effective and she uses it to great effect in between her sections of monologue. She has had a successful music career so far, singing in Arabic, Sudanese and English. She has sung at many festivals, has worked with an array of local musicians and has cut a CD of her own compositions.
The opening night applause went for 3 or so minutes. Members of the audience were so appreciative because they had been taken on such a personal journey by Kwai. To be able to look to Kwai’s gleaming eyes and wonder what horrors she has witnessed was very sad and confronting. What was most interesting was the way she simply told stories about the position of woman and how they suffer in war and how some survive and come out the other side. Like the story of another cousin who also managed to arrive in Australia. Kwai lists her cousin’s achievements and then simply states that ‘sometimes, out of misery there is light’. Perhaps this is what was so inspiring for the audience. If you want to hear incredible stories and witness reserved but raw emotion, don’t miss this exceptional one-person performance.