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Leading Aboriginal and Māori theatre companies are joining forces on a new rom-com

Black Ties Asia TOPA Sydney Festival 2020 supplied
Photograph: Garth Oriander

The gravelly gravitas of Uncle Jack Charles’ voice raises the hairs on your arms and can command silence in a room, even in the midst of glorious chaos. 

We’re sitting in on rehearsals for quick-witted First Nations wedding rom-com play Black Ties and the current scene sees an eruption of family drama in Melbourne airport. Lisa Maza plays Ruth, a mother and Aboriginal woman who has found out her entrepreneurial son Kane (Mark Coles-Smith) has secretly proposed to his Māori girlfriend, businesswoman Hera (Tuakoi Ohia). Initially overjoyed, the sudden fear of losing touch with Kane, and him losing touch with his culture, kicks up a stink in the arrivals lounge. “Well isn’t it funny how quickly the weather can turn on you in Melbourne,” Ruth grimaces. 

Playing Kane’s uncle Mick, Uncle Jack’s entreaty for peace is a source of calm, the voice of wisdom in a riotous comedy that cleverly broaches race relations and cultural implications. “He’s really overjoyed by having his boy marry a Māori girl,” Uncle Jack says. “It’s enlivened him, given him a new sense of his own spirituality and direction in life.”

Photograph: Tiffany Garvie.

The deep respect shared by cast and crew for Uncle Jack radiates around the room. Co-produced by Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ilbijerri Theatre Company, artistic director Rachael Maza co-directs Black Ties. It’s their first collaboration with Maori company Te Rēhia Theatre from New Zealand. The seed was sown when Ilbijerri toured Jack Charles V The Crown to the Auckland Festival in 2018.

“I’m totally amazed at the way these mob work,” Uncle Jack says of the Te Rēhia cohort. “It’s opened up my eyes. I consider myself the last surviving grandfather of Indigenous theatre, now that Uncle Bob Maza has passed on, so it’s up to me to keep that going. In theatre you never stop learning, as in life.”

He believes it’s time for First Nations stories to move beyond ‘trauma porn’. “It’s about spiritual healing,” he suggests. “We don’t often send ourselves up. We’re too serious.”

Embracing risqué comedy that wholeheartedly rips both cultures, Black Ties – which will be staged at Asia TOPA festival, appropriately in Arts Centre Melbourne's functions space – is created by First Nations people, for First Nations people. The rest of us are blooming lucky to have it. 

Rachael Maza – Bob’s daughter and Lisa’s sister – agrees with Uncle Jack that it’s important to tell a wider range of stories. “Black Ties is about creating the space for us to play,” she says. “If we get that right, then we’ve already succeeded. If we have a great show at the other end, which people outside of our cultural context just happen to really enjoy, it’s win, win, win all the way.”

Co-director and writer Tainui Tukiwaho, who also plays Hera’s father Robert, agrees. “Rachael and I trained in a colonised concept of theatre, and so challenging what that is and grabbing the good bits out for what serves us and leaving the rest behind, then doing the same with our cultures, moves us forward,” he says.

Maza concurs. “It’s a constant reminder to me that the role of the artist is to honour their voice, not to be second-guessing their audience. There’s a real danger there, where an artist loses their power, and much more so for us, coming from our cultural contexts.”

Much of the comedy in Black Ties derives from a shared notion of connection to country that means it’s hard for one First Nations mother to hand over a kid to another. Working side-by-side, Maza and Tukiwaho’s work uncovers as many similarities as there are differences. “It comes from a place of respect, understanding and a shared experience,” Maza says. “The conversation has shifted, because we don’t need to be educating each other. And we can talk about the heavy shit while we’re laughing.”

Tukiwaho worried that one line he wrote, taking aim at an Aboriginal character, might have gone too far. “I was prepping myself for somebody to tell me off,” he confesses. “But Rachael let me know that if I wanted to be really insulting, I needed to insult blackfellas about their culture, rather than aesthetics.”

Photograph: Tiffany Garvie.

They both laugh when they say that the crossed line hasn’t been found as yet, with many of the characters giving it a right good nudge in either direction. It’s the sort of play that will have you checking yourself if it’s OK to laugh along. “We know there are some jokes, because of the climate we live in at the moment, that if you’re not part of that culture, laughing at it is a bit scary,” Tukiwaho agrees. “But I really love it when people do laugh, because I feel like they’re on our wavelength. Because most of the time when people are racist, they’re too scared to laugh, because generally they’re cowards.”

He notes the usual dramas about wedding venues and dresses do not apply here. “They’re not a concern for our people. For our mothers, it’s about where their grandchildren are going to end up, and how are we perpetuating our people? There’s an innate fear, when your kids marry somebody from a different country. And it’s not about race. It’s about the distance.”

Ruth’s dilemma when presented with the engagement is real. “What we see in that very moment is the extraordinary resilience, tenacity and sophistication of our mob to fight for that right to be on this country, to know who you are, to know your culture,” Maza says. “And it has been a fight, certainly in the Australian context. So in the very moment that we see that matriarch stand her ground, we see thousands of generations of resistance fighters and warriors. We’re reclaiming the narrative, that actually we’re frigging extraordinary.”

Tukiwaho similarly adores Lana Garland’s performance as Hera's mother, Syliva. “If you’re not Māori, you won't necessarily see, but those women can command an army because all the men will move at the wave of a hand. Not because they’re scared, we move because we respect them, because of the journey that they have travelled to reach that point. But in films or on TV, all we see are angry Māori women, so showing more of the reality in Black Ties excites me.”

Black Ties is at Arts Centre Melbourne from February 21 to 29.

Check out our highlights of the Asia TOPA festival and all the best theatre in Melbourne this month.

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