Emele Ugavule and Ayeesha Ash might be performers, but they do not exist for your entertainment. Black Birds, named after the collective they co-created to devise work that dissects and documents the female Non-Indigenous Black and Brown diasporic experience in Australia, is a searing and scathing look at the politics of blackness in a majority white society.
The show is organised as a series of sharp vignettes in which Ugavule and Ash explore their experiences as Black women in a society that designates them as “other” or “wrong” – as having the wrong hair, the wrong colour skin, the wrong kind of names.
Ugavule, who is Tokelauan/Fijian, and Ash, who is Grenadian born with parents of Maori and Caribbean heritage, are tackling the compulsion of white people to group people of colour into a single ethnicity, ignoring or disregarding the specifics of different heritages and cultures.
In one scene, Ash recalls being mistaken as Hawaiian. Her inner monologue is projected onto the set’s backdrop so we can see the initial confusion, light attempts at correction, and finally her resignation to being misidentified – the ‘easy’ choice she must make to placate her acquaintance and to avoid being deemed difficult or demanding.
Black Birds touches frequently on the matter of hair: from the relatively benign curiosity of white classmates at school, through to the threat of being touched without consent by adult passersby. It’s not difficult to draw a line from this sense of entitlement to longer histories of racial oppression, forced migration and slavery – and Ugavule and Ash want their audience to make that connection.
The show, which previewed as part of WITS' Festival Fatale in 2016 with a conversational air and a quick laugh, has evolved – and in many ways hardened – into a stronger, more confronting work.
That’s not to say it isn’t funny. It sparks with wit, but that wit is now a weapon and a source of strength. They poke quick fun at lighter injustices (being compared to every other black person on the planet), but those moments give way quickly to devastating recollections: of a partner’s rejection;of fetishisation; of violence.
This version of Black Birds is has a stronger structure, with clearer storytelling. It’s a performance piece with a mission. The women want their stories to stay with you, and they have infused them with the power of ritual to ensure that they do: using old languages and old tools to tell news stories creates a lineage between past and present, and it’s the incorporation of movement (choreographed by Sarah Vai) and spoken word that capture the importance of Ugavule and Ash’s lived experience and tie it into a history of oppression and disenfranchisement for Black and Brown peoples across the globe.
They list the names they have been called since they were children. They do this more than once. And as the insults get worse, they stand strong. On the night I attended, it was the majority-white audience who winced (and rightly so). This is theatre designed to provoke and to create empathy. And it succeeds.