As the wafting smoke from the Welcome to Country drifts through the audience it seems to help me focus. It envelops so that the traffic speeding past seems distant. The smoke is pungent and yet soothing. It heightens my senses and increases my receptivity, yet several times during HOME COUNTRY I find little moments of wondering why I feel … whatever it is I am feeling.
HOME COUNTRY is the latest work from Urban Theatre Projects with Blacktown Arts Centre as part of the Sydney Festival. It is staged in Blacktown; it has three stories in a multi-storey carpark; it has a culturally diverse creative team of, writers, musicians, advisors, designers. But it is the actors who do the job here. They are a wonderful cast.
The first characters we meet are from the story BLACKTOWN ANGELS (Andrea James). Angel (Shakira Clanton) has been guarding the audience for quite a while, perched over us on the edge of one of the car park levels. What a presence this actor has. And then she begins to sing. What a voice! The words are unfamiliar but so beautifully rendered to be as enveloping as that smoke.
Unaware of her presence Uncle Cheeky (Billy McPherson) calls our attention back to the trees behind us. Perfectly interpreted, his character is warm and welcoming. He challenges Aboriginal stereotypes from his first words … ‘want to borrow some money’…’want to drop the kids off’? His wry and self-deprecating introduction is littered with the refrain ‘just joking’. We will meet both Angel and Uncle Cheeky several times as their story is intertwined with two others.
Kween G is a rapper and rhymer and she assists the audience to head in the right direction throughout the show. Kween guides us to the story of ZAPHORA AND ALI (Original concept Gaele Sobott, adapted by Nancy Denis, Danny Elacci and Rosie Denis).
Zaphora (Nancy Denis) an Australian of Sierra Leone heritage on the balcony of an adjoining building enjoying her lunch break. She is joined by Ali (Danny Elacci) who is a second generation Aussie from an Algerian background.
Ali is pretty out of his depth here… both emotionally and vocally as he tries to make conversation. They have a meeting point in the Kardashians after they “clocked” that they were different. However, they separate as pop culture gets specific and the divide really opens up when the topics of race and media arrive. There is only the ambient sound of evening birdsong to fill the silence between them. This is such beautifully moderated work from these two performers. The tension is superbly realised, the conflict is simmering and the anger disturbingly real.
The other drama happening at the same time is the first chapter of STEPS INTO KATOUNA (Peter Polites). A car pulls into a parking spot and a young man of Greek heritage gives himself a quiet few moments to eat and have a smoke before heading off to his bar job. Actor Jonathan Nicholas has a difficult task.
This dialogue is recorded audio delivered via individual headsets. The audience hear his inner monologue. Nicholas has the thoughtfulness and stillness of this character just right and the one time when his actions correspond to the dialogue, the slightest movement of an outstretched hand, is honest and genuine.
These three stories resonate with allusions to each other. Black cockatoos, enjoying a rollie and home … always home. Spiritual, personal or generational reflections of country and belonging impel the pieces and drive them sequentially toward each other even as they remain separate texts.
The production includes a delicious feast which reflects the cultures of the protagonists and it is great fun to sit with others and enjoy discussing the show so far, the delightful dishes we are relishing and the infectious music from musicians Mohammed Lelo and James Tawadros on qanún and percussion.
They also join with Kween G to provide a cabaret experience toward the end of the show. After dinner we all make our way excitedly to see new and culminating scenes for each of the stories.
But there has been something niggling at me. An undefinable something … until my friend and I have a passionate debrief under a street light after the show. As much as I enjoyed my evening, I felt slightly confused and conflicted because there were elements which didn’t gel for me. The purpose of the car park location, with all the associated issues with audio and sight lines, plus the piece’s considerable length seem to be at the heart of my unease but that does not diminish the accumulated power of the storytelling. HOME COUNTRY has three terrific stories well worth the telling.
The Urban Theatre Projects, in association with Blacktown Arts Centre, is playing at the Colo Lane Carpark, Blacktown until the 22nd January. Performance time is between 6.30 pm and 10 pm. There are no performances on the Monday or Tuesday.