“My culture was supposed to make me a man”, cries a recidivist character at one stage during this intense night of national introspection. Earlier, performer Chandler Connell has revealed his Wiradjuri ancestry – but the individual identity of Marrugeku’s cast is both largely unknown during the staging and therefore difficult to engage with in a multicultural melting pot that now represents Australia.
But Connell’s cry resonated for me because, of course, the dance/theatre company with its Broome base in the person of co-director/choreographer Delisa Pigram, has always had a powerful Indigenous identity. In this show, Bunuba man (from the Central Kimberley) Emmanuel James Brown opens the show and contributes his grandfather’s song later.
And it was WA Indigenous Senator Pat Dodson who challenged the company to make ‘Jurrungu Ngan-Ga’ (‘Straight Talk’ in the Bardi language). His actual words were: “We are a nation of jailers, we lock up that which we fear. Why does it take five big men to detain one little boy? (in the NT’s Don Dale prison, exposed by the ABC) Cruelty is a heinous thing. How would you work to embody that fear on stage?”.
As if First Nations people didn’t have enough fear of the authorities already – police, prison, social services, even those attempting to deliver vaccinations – Marrugeku turned to another embattled group, the refugees we imprison at such distances that their individuality is invisible to our humanity. “We invited Behrouz Boochani and Omid Tofighian (his translator) as guest cultural dramaturgs to join Patrick in this long term role with the company, working alongside Flemish dance dramaturg Hildegard de Vuyst,” explained co-director Rachael Swain.
The result is three distinct performance styles for the work. There’s the most theatrically successful, ‘straight talk’, as individuals speak their personal angst and demand our acceptance – as with Bhenji Ra’s trans challenge to the omnipresent CCTV cameras, “You are afraid of this body”. There’s ‘horrific surrealism’, which largely takes the form of much twitching and angst-ridden group dancing to electronic sounds that match the anxiety, but somehow, individuals retain their personality within the group. The ‘horror’ includes a massed listing of the names of the dead, both Indigenous and refugee . A third section labelled, ‘this is Australia’ was the least intuitive to read.
But the multivalent cast (Indigenous, people seeking asylum, transgender and settlers of many backgrounds) is seeking to question ‘who really is in prison here?’.
And ‘Jurrungu Ngan-ga’ is brilliantly set in a ‘prison of the mind of Australia’, designed by artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah to portray both the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’ and simultaneously to reveal its flimsy construction.
But then there are the candelabras! Not exactly associated with prisons – of life or the mind – in Indigenous Australia or Manus Island. So I spent much time questioning their symbolism – for they appeared time after time in different quantities, they were raised and lowered right to the ground, and were accompanied by appropriately tinkling music. Was it colonialism, luxury or fragility – for at the end, lowered right to the ground, they wobbled weakly as if to give up the fight for their symbolic role?
It’s that sort of show. One in which insignificant aspects of dramaturgy, design, character or sound demand your attention but may remain unresolved. But, given that this work was devised as far back as 2019 and held in cast and creatives souls during this trying COVID period, only to burst forth after a brief regathering of the clans in 2022, it can only be called remarkable.
And what of the Festival boycott for this very political group: “In a statement, Marrugeku said they took this decision to withdraw in light of Sydney Festival’s actions to seek and retain funding from the state of Israel”. Fortunately, Carriageworks, their venue partner, continued its support. “It is our responsibility to ensure that the strong voices within ‘Jurrungu Ngan-ga‘ – whether First Nations Australians, people seeking asylum alongside allied settler artists from diverse backgrounds – can perform with clear liyan (spirit and wellbeing). It is critical that the dancers will be heard, particularly in these circumstances as ‘Jurrungu Ngan-ga‘ embodies the essence of solidarity”.
The show tours to Melbourne and Hamburg.