Tribunal by Powerhouse Youth Theatre (PYT) Fairfield is a theatre performance cum community gathering headed by Indigenous elder Aunty Rhonda Grovener Dixon to discuss and share stories regarding the Australian government’s treatment of asylum seekers. The work seeks to expose parallels between the cruel conditions of the mandatory detention of asylum seekers and the historical and present-day injustices against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Australia. Among those gathered are two former asylum seekers (Mahdi Mohammadi, who is also a theatre artist, and Jawad Yaqoub), a lecturer in performance studies (Dr. Paul Dwyer), a theatre artist and former Red Cross worker (Katie Green) and PYT Fairfield’s director Karen Therese, who speaks on behalf of Human Rights Lawyer Joe Tan. These are later joined by guest speakers who change from night to night. The work includes many powerful stories by people with first-hand experiences with horrific cruelty and trauma, several of which brought me to tears. Stories by Mahdi Mohammadi and Aunty Rhonda in particular were central to the piece, as they related and compared experiences as subjects of racial subjugation by the Australian government.
These stories alone make the piece worth seeing; this is a timely reflection on the history of Australian governmental abuse of power. The work, by invoking the language and loose format of a tribunal, invites reflection on how racial discrimination is institutionalised and legislated. In this context, it is also powerful to see a space created in which an Aboriginal elder is recognised and respected as a figure of judicial authority, even though the purpose of the work does not seem to concern matters of authority so much as community discussion.
However, I had several questions about the form and presentation of the work, as well as some of the content. The work seemed to lie in a kind of middle ground between direct presentation and theatrical representation, and this line between reality and interpretation seemed to be intentionally blurred. For example, two of the guest speakers were slam poets, who towards the end came up to slam on the topic of Islamophobia. They had evidently been organised to perform, but they had responded to the call for a final question from the audience. Why pretend that the poetry was unplanned, then later reveal tacitly that it had been planned? Moreover, the backgrounds and identities of some of the performers was told to the audience, but others were left mysterious. Because Paul Dwyer performed the role of an immigration officer interrogating Mohammadi, the context seemed to imply (falsely) that this was a role that he had previously held. Given that everybody else seemed to have some kind of direct or indirect connection to the stories at hand, his presence went unexplained. Director Karen Therese seems to have, in these cases, abandoned transparency in pursuit of some kind of theatrical effect, which I feel was inappropriate and detracted from the power and integrity of Mohammadi and Aunty Rhonda’s experiences. The work often made me wonder why any of the performers except for those two were there at all. If the purpose was to simply tell stories from different perspectives, this would have been better achieved with a more straightforward panel discussion.
Oh the other hand, there is a potent affective relationship that can potentially emerge between audience bodies and the bodies of people who have survived trauma. The work might have intended to exploit this dynamic to impact audiences, but the direction was incompetent. Various theatrical devices were used, including sudden shifts into dramatic reenactment and an extended abstract dance sequence. Why? Often something would happen unexpectedly, and then be explained. Why keep us in suspense? It feels patronising, as if we aren’t capable of paying attention to so serious a matter. As one senior Aboriginal audience member commented, discussing these traumatic matters is painful, and the signs of pain could be seen in some of those on stage. The performance deserves an audience, but the key performers also deserve a more appropriate context, rather than these strange modifications to fit a Western theatrical model, vaguely representing ceremony and ritual but failing to embody it.