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Ghenoa Gela combines movement and words to reveal her life as a Torres Strait mainlander
My Urrwai – from the Kala Lagaw Ya language of the western and central Torres Strait Islands, meaning, roughly, my style or my spirit, including the way one moves – is Ghenoa Gela’s life story writ large on stage. It’s irresistible and with her bright smile, conversational delivery and an excess of charm, you might fall in love with her.
Gela, a dancer and performer from Rockhampton, has been studying her family’s dances since she was old enough to walk. With a quick wit and irrepressible energy, she explains the routine: school, dance practice, dinner, Bible study, dance practice, sleep. When we see her dance, the results of this training are clear; she dances with great intention and great ease, like her body feels best in motion.
While Gela might make fun of that old routine, it becomes clear that it was hugely important: soon Gela will be the only person who can teach her grandmother’s dancers as they were once performed on Moa Island.
Directed by Rachel Maza, with Kate Champion serving as movement consultant, My Urrwai is an absorbing, swiftly-moving, well-judged performance piece that sparks with intelligence – including emotional intelligence – and meaning. It’s Gela’s story, but it’s never self-obsessed; she has a story to tell with her art, and so she tells it. We are on the journey with her.
We follow Gela through her experiences at NAISDA, watch a recreation of her award-winning 2017 Deadly Funny comedy routine, and stay with her as she comes out to her family. Her fear of their reaction – that her sexuality isn’t the cultural way, or God’s way – rests its spiny cold fingers on the audience (her family’s acceptance is a collective exhale for us).
Gela takes us to Moa Island in this 65-minute show that crosses oceans and genres and discusses bigger ideas: the impact of Christianity on Torres Strait Islander culture; the different life experiences for mainland-born TSI peoples and those who live on the islands; discrimination at school and in the arts; casual racism; the way many white Australians assume Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures are all one. It isn’t overwhelming, but we’re left with a lot to think about.
There is audience participation, but it’s hard to mind or fear when Gela is both instantly trustworthy and consistently sunny. And her use of audience bodies is calculating; she asks her white audience members to step into Gela’s shoes in fraught and threatening moments of racial profiling. She asks us to see what she sees and, after she recreates a recent and particularly terrifying incident, asks the audience member how it felt. She admits that she was scared, and Gela responds, not unkindly, that the audience member doesn’t have to worry: it will never happen to her. But it will continue to happen to Gela. This perceptive, interactive examination of her audience is striking, and it reminds us that we are not passive – that we have work to do and voices to use to intervene when people are unfairly targeted.
My Urrwai is the second of two shows about Torres Strait Islander cultural inheritance, restoration and preservation, from entirely different perspectives, with entirely different tones. That we have two TSI shows in rep at a major Sydney theatre feels revolutionary; that they are led by Jimi Bani and the remarkable Ghenoa Gela is a gift. See My Urrwai, and see My Name is Jimi; your life will be better for it.