In this immersive, interactive theatrical journey, Blacktown locals take you on a tour of their suburb via food, music and storytelling
Consisting of three short plays (each staged in parts), with a couple of musical interludes and a meal thrown in for good measure, Urban Theatre Projects’ Home Country is at once place- and site-specific.
The place in question is Blacktown, one of the city’s most multicultural suburbs. The site is a multi-level car park a short walk from the train station, which the audience ascends over the course of the evening.
The car park is in some ways the star of the show. The breeze coming in through the gum trees, the cawing of crows and the hum of early evening traffic, the gradual fading of the light: it’s a wonderfully singular space for a piece of theatre, with the suburb constantly bleeding in at the edges. (The owner of a nearby apartment came out onto her balcony at one point during the proceedings, wondering what all the hubbub was about. She went back inside and shut her curtains.)
The space plays several roles here: it's a home, a nightclub, a pokies lounge, a more abstract, dream-like space, and, of course, an actual car park. Ironically, it is in this last role that its limitations become most apparent – or at least the limitations of the story it’s being used to tell. This is the story of a Greek-Australian man (played by Jonathon Nicholas) whose soliloquy about his dying mother is delivered to the audience through headphones. This piece is only intermittently interesting (and perhaps too reminiscent of Christos Tsiolkas’s Dead Europe) but where it suffers most is in its illustration. You can only watch a man roll and smoke cigarettes in a twilit car park for so long before you begin to zone out, no matter what you’re listening to.
The second part of his story – performed immediately after dinner and again delivered through headphones – is arguably even more static, with the exception of a semi-dance piece performed at the far end of the space, well away from most of the audience. It's the only time when the space feels ill-used. The multimedia approach is distancing in another way.
The other pieces prove more intimate and successful, in part because they’re two-handers in which the chemistry between the performers is both charming and tangible, and because the writing is stronger. The first details the antagonism-turned-flirtation between a Sierra Leonean-Australian (Nancy Denis) and the Lebanese-Australian IT guy (Danny Elacci) who works in her office. (They clash when he suggests that he identifies with her “struggle”.)
The third and most dominant storyline details the guilt felt by an Aboriginal man (Billy McPherson, by turns raffish and tortured) over an act of negligence for which he cannot forgive himself.
Both stories are shot through with sly humour and genuine pathos, and though the racial commentary that infuses them is perhaps less subtle than it could be, both expand and interrogate the idea of “home” in interesting ways. They seem of a piece, mutually revealing, contrasting and comparing the experiences of Indigenous Australians on the one hand and that of recent arrivals on the other. In both cases, these run the gamut from invisibility to demonisation – with scarcely a middle ground of simple acceptance between them. (Though the Greek-Australian piece also deals with the idea of home, it doesn’t feel like it’s in conversation with these other pieces to the same degree.)
To this extent, the show is a way of telling non-white stories in a sphere where they’re underrepresented, and to an audience whom, one suspects, very rarely ventures west. This is both worthwhile and necessary. But it arguably has the unintended effect of emphasising the centrality of the white gaze to non-white experience, even as it criticises that centrality. (This critique is made most explicit in the story of the young couple, who compare her apparent invisibility as a black woman to his knee-jerk vilification as what the tabloids would call “a young man of Middle Eastern appearance”.)
The result isn't exactly placebo theatre – that middlebrow stuff trotted out by the majors to challenge subscribers’ ideas of themselves in a safe and ultimately consoling way – but it comes close: any sense of self-rebuke white viewers might feel during the proceedings can too easily be weighed against the noble frisson of having attended a show about our multi-cultural reality in the first place.
The result is a kind of impasse. Consider one of the more tellingly awkward moments I’ve experienced at the theatre for a while: watching the Ugandan-Australian hip hop artist Kween G rap to the Middle Eastern melodies of Mohammed Lelo's qanun while a majority-white audience watched on, refusing, for the most part, to tap its feet, let alone to get up and dance. Like the meal that divides the show’s two halves – a combination of Greek, African and Middle Eastern dishes – this moment feels like an invitation to share, to engage, to break down, not only the fourth wall, but other barriers, too: it's a hand extended but not quite taken, with uncertainty or a misplaced sense of theatrical etiquette somehow getting in the way. Needless to say, this isn't really the fault of the show.
But one image lingers: a fugitive vision telescoping and distilling the history of dispossession, and of race and class relations, into one ideal moment that anchors the uneven whole. It comes at the very beginning of the show, after the welcome to country and its attendant smoking ceremony. Shakira Clanton (herself the child of Aboriginal and African-American parents) enters singing a song in language before stopping to gaze from the concrete walls of the car park over the gum trees to the horizon. The built and the natural, the material and the spiritual, the legacy of the settler and the endurance of the survivor. These coexist, however briefly, in a living palimpsest that is very Blacktown, and undeniably Australian. It’s as sad and strangely hopeful an image of home as one is likely to find.