For a regular theatregoer, it’s a joy having the chance to temporarily remove yourself from the responsibilities of daily life to engage in stories that tell the plight of persons who live in worlds and partake in practises that starkly contrast the existence you know. Those stories run the gambit of human experience from the utterly absurd to the terribly sad.
But it’s often difficult to go past those stories that belong to real people in real situations. And what’s particularly refreshing is having the opportunity to hear those stories – some of which are almost beyond belief – told by those who’ve actually lived through those events.
It’s precisely that type of theatrical experience offered by Who Speaks For Me? Co-directed by William Yang and Annette Shun Wah, this is the fourth work to be staged by the recently-minted National Theatre of Parramatta (in partnership with Shun Wash’s Performance 4a) and provides a snapshot into the richly culturally and ethnically diverse population of the Western Sydney region.
Over 60 minutes, the true stories of three families are told by the families themselves. Firstly, husband and wife Puspa Lal and Chandra Acharya share with audiences the story of their former life in Bhutan, which they were forced to abandon because of their stance against a crackdown on Nepali language and culture. For two decades, the couple lived in a refugee camp in Nepal, before travelling to Australia to be settled in Sydney as part of a humanitarian program.
The second story is that of the Le family, this time told by three generations. Bà Quôc Viêt was famous in Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia because of her cooking skills. She ultimately fled her homeland with daughter, Sophie To, who also shares here in the storytelling duties. In Australia, Sophie married and had three children, one of whom was William, representing a third generation of the Le family on stage. William was born profoundly deaf and today is a writer, filmmaker and co-director of interCulture casting & management (iCCAM), an agency that represents artists from culturally diverse backgrounds, those living with disability and those who identify as LGBTIQ.
Finally, Ly Heang Seang and her son, Vanna, tell the tale of their origins in Cambodia. Ly grew up in the time of the Khmer Rouge and Vietnamese invasion. She and her family, including Vanna (who was then a toddler), left Cambodia and lived in several refugee camps in Thailand, eventually arriving in Australia and beginning a new life.
As well as the harrowing events each family shares as to the circumstances that led to their resettlement in Australia, a common thread in each story is the challenges faced by, at least, one member of each family as a result of their lack of the English language. In each instance, the language barrier hasn’t prevented these individuals from meaningfully contributing to the Australian community. Ly Heang’s husband suffered a debilitating accident at work in Australia, and despite her lack of English and formal education, she has become the sole breadwinner for her family of seven. Bà Quôc Viêt began running cooking classes after her arrival in Sydney, her cooking stalls becoming a fixture at community events, spawning DVDs and cookbooks of her recipes.
The storytelling in Who Speaks For Me? is powerful and absolutely compelling. And while each story shocks in the details families share of their life experiences, there are wonderful moments of humour and warmth. Each family’s story is illustrated with photos from their own albums, testifying to both their former and current lives.
Most importantly, this work serves as a salient and timely reminder of the remarkable impact migrants have had, and continue to have, on the wider Australian community. At a time when terrorism fears prompt many to see an influx of new arrivals on our shores as a threat – and, often, specifically those whose English language proficiency is basic at best – works of the ilk of Who Speaks For Me? are effective in refuting misconceptions about the inability of migrants to contribute to making Australia better. It gives faces to what have become statistics for many and demonstrates for us who these people really are.
The stories of the families in Who Speaks For Me? should leave audiences not only uplifted by discovering what each of the individual family members has achieved, but also immensely proud of the fact of their belonging to our Australian community.