Given its delayed opening because of Covid – its ‘first night’ was at 1.30pm today – and its short run until only tomorrow, I wanted to rush a review of Mutiara, Marrugeku’s latest dance work so that Sydneysiders have some hope of seeing it.

It’s very good, as I’ve come to expect from Broome’s increasingly multi-cultural group lead by Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain. I’m reminded of the refreshment that hit us when Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae first strode the boards with the realisation that an ‘Aboriginal’ playwright didn’t have to reflect only that part of his ancestry, but could offer the full Chinese/Japanese/Anglo-Irish blend, which all played parts in his creative output.

The pearling industry in Broom may have had an inglorious history of exploitation and the capacity to kill its indentured divers. But it’s also been a factor in making Broome the cosmopolitan town it is today. So, Mutiara is less a Yawuru or Bardi story, much more an Asian one – with two Asian performers dancing dynamically beside Pigram, while the elder Ahmat Bin Fadal brings an almost ghostly dignity as a survivor of the pearling industry since 1962, and regales us in Arabic to tell his story.

There is undoubtedly an allusiveness in this production, which also features a Malay bomoh, which Wikipedia tells me “is primarily a healer, herbalist, geomancer, and sorcerer”. Danced by the fabulous Zee Zunnur, her long black hair obscuring her face, she healed little but terrified the stage – which was bare but for a movable wall of ropes allowing historic films of the pearling days to be screened on them, and a ritual heap of pearl shells.

As much as anything the always interesting dance was amplified by the music – which ranged from the Twist though both classical and pop gamelan, plaintive shakuhachi to the deep, laboured breathing of divers. There was even a schmaltzy waltz, elegantly legged by Pigram and Soultari Amin Farid as old Fadal’s contemporary avatar.

Voices add to our understanding of the history – the pathetic politics that cravenly sought to keep Aborigines from consorting with the migrants and producing “children with deleterious cultural traits”; the dodgy anthropology desperate to measure everything; the colourless grey of the Broome gravestones commemorating so many dead divers compared to the vividness of south-east Asian places of remembrance; but surprisingly few facts about pearling.
Information boards in the foyer could be relied on for that.

We were at Mutiara to experience Rubibi/Broome’s mixed-up heart – which Marrugeku supplied in rupiah!

Mutiara will appear at the Perth Festival – which commissioned it – next month.

Meanwhile, over at Belvoir Theatre…..
Tiddas is a hugely popular play that’s been brought in from La Boite in Brisbane. It purports to be about a girls’ book group, but we rarely get to consider any books. It’s all about the dynamics of this unlikely group – who seem to have coincidentally moved en masse from Mudgee to Briso.

Important is the Blak identity of three of the women (and a witty, but otherwise unexplained Grandma). But my problem with the play is the slow reveal of the individual characters and their roles. Apart from getting accidentally pregnant, for instance, does Izzy (Lara Croydon) have an identity?

And pregnancy is a key feature of the play. For poor Xanthe (Jade Lomas-Ronan) is the victim of un/successful IVF treatments, her mood swings all related to them. And the older Veronica (Anna McMahon), who is non-Indigenous and recently divorced, has come to realise that her life of service to husband and sons hasn’t get her very far.

The strongest character is the ‘Bad White’ woman, Nadine (Louise Brehmer) who’s actually a successful writer, but who gets increasingly bitter (and drunk) about the group’s failure to choose to read her books – perhaps because they don’t include First Nations elements.

And then there’s Blak Ellen (Perry Mooney) who all-but shocks the others with her sexual liberty, then delights them with her finding ‘the one’ bloke. Interestingly, despite much talk of Indigenous difference in the play, the best moment is Ellen’s eulogy for the dead (but never actually seen) Auntie Molly, back in Mudgee.

As a picture of successful Koori women (they refuse to identify with Brisbane’s Murries!) who all seem to live in smart places like Kangaroo Point and Paddington in book-lined rooms, it’s undoubtedly a rarity on our stages. I suspect author Anita Heiss had more room to engage readers in her original novel; while I just kept wondering why these women came together so often to bicker!

At Belvoir until 28th January.

Jade-Lomas-Ronan, Anna McMahon, Roxanne McDonald, Perry-Mooney, Louise Brehmer