Time Out says
Coconut Woman is an all too familiar tale of finding oneself in the after-effects of colonisation
It’s easy to miss the man sitting on the dark stage as you arrive, patiently seated by the sail with a guitar in hand. But as the stage lights up, so does his voice as he begins to sing in Meriam, the language of Mer Island.
Coconut Woman feels like an extended theatrical version of the catchy pop song ‘My Island Home’ covered and tweaked by Torres Strait Islander singer, Christina Anu – a tale of someone yearning for home.
It’s a story of migration overseas, the importance of family and it won’t only ring true to First Nations people, but to any second or third generation migrant who struggles with their identity. Written by Ballarat playwright Maryanne Sam (who waited a cool decade to see her production come to life), the poignant tale focuses on Sam’s own experience of living on the lands of the Kulin Nation as a Torres Strait Islander herself.
The play is feel-good, but it isn’t without its fair share of pain caused by colonisation. It’s cognisant of the plight of many First Nations people and the Stolen Generations, and doesn’t deliver a cheesy happy ending, but a contemplative one that tugs on the ol’ heart strings.
The protagonist, Nancy Bruce played by Indian Singaporean-Torres Strait Islander (Meriam-Badulaig woman) Laila Thaker, experiences life born in the big smoke of Melbourne (on the land of the Kulin Nations) and, orphaned in adulthood, has no true connection to her roots – she is a coconut: brown on the outside, white on the inside. Despite this, she works as a First Nations consultant at her own consultancy, Nancy Bruce’s Arts consultancy, and one day receives the call to head up north to the Torres Strait for a big project.
From here in, comedy ensues as both sides of the coin are portrayed with Bruce’s family up north (her mother’s brother and sister-in-law) representing Aislan Kastom (Island Customs) while Bruce is the ultimate caricature of a privileged Melburnian, seen voyaging over and complaining about her misplaced Louis Vuitton luggage on the way. Throughout this all, the aforementioned guitarist strums away and never departs the set, though it’s insinuated that he is Bruce’s father. It’s an apparent tug of war for respect, with either party not understanding each other’s customs and traditions, but the importance of blood and family (or “pamily”) prevails.
The play switches from the past to the present and with it, so does the mainly Meriam cast – thought the set which stays stationary and locked in time as the cast seamlessly work around it. Thaker also plays the role of her mother, Shilita Gazeer, and does so near-effortlessly, bar some off-key notes, while Weiben-Meriam man Corey Brunskill-Saylor, plays Shilita’s brother, Harry Gazeer, in his youth. The two work together like chalk and cheese to deliver a convincing performance.
Meriam man and AFI nominee Charles Passi does an exceptional job at making you fall in love with a stranger within the tight space of an hour. He plays the lovable Harry Gazeer in his older years when Bruce returns to the island, and is a reminder of the importance of our elders and why they should be cherished. His voice booms and intertwines in song beautifully with his wife’s, Cessy Gazeer in her old years, played by Meriam woman Deb Lowah Clark, who delivers a striking performance. Seats vibrate with the hum of the audience tapping their feet in tune and the sounds of claps hung mid-air.
A standing ovation ensued by the end, and rightfully so. We’re happy to have waited ten years to see Sam’s vision come to life, and we hope to see it more often outside of Yirramboi.