Actor and writer Katie Beckett mines her relationship with her father for this comedy about family and country #IndigenousDads
In August last year, The Australian ran a cartoon by Bill Leak that represented a sickeningly dominant cultural narrative about Indigenous fathers as drunk, neglectful, and dismissive.
There was public outcry after the cartoon was published, but Leak’s central conceit still made it into a national newspaper and was roundly defended by its creator and the publisher. Australia can be damningly, casually racist, particularly when its white population is allowed to speak – with authority – for other cultures.
All the more reason to get along to Which Way Home, Katie Beckett’s 2016 father-daughter road-trip play, having its Sydney premiere at Belvoir for Sydney Festival.
Beckett, who won the 2015 Balnaves Foundation Indigenous Playwright’s Award, said she wrote the play both as a love letter to her father and to provide audiences with a story of an Indigenous dad as a positive role model. With those twin strands at the core of its DNA, Which Way Home feels as safe and generous as a tight hug from a loved one.
Tash (played by Beckett) has come to collect her father (Tony Briggs), for a road trip back to his home country, from Queensland down past Lightning Ridge in New South Wales. They’re playful – Tash tries to stop her diabetic father from eating too many snacks, while he teases her about her boyfriend – but they clearly think the world of each other.
While the drama is ostensibly tied to the interior of a car (barring rest stops) director Rachael Maza keeps the play kinetic by pushing the boundaries of realism: Tash doesn’t need to keep her hands at 10-and-2 for us to feel like she’s driving, and the makeshift boxes that serve as car seats double for any number of flashback props. It’s like a photo album, flipped open and re-animated on stage.
Emily Barrie’s set is simple but it immediately indicates the scope of the trip the two must take: a zoomed-in map of New South Wales and Queensland runs from floor to ceiling. It’s understood, when Tash gets lost, how easy that is. Ambient noise (designed by Mark Coles Smith – who was outstanding on stage in Belvoir’s production of The Drover’s Wife) filters through when we need it most, to summon a sense of place: the car, the beach, a dangerous dirt road.
Briggs is endearing; he holds court with dad jokes, sing-alongs, and an impulse to feed Tash (who, of course, insists she isn’t hungry). When Tash flashes back to difficult moments with her dad, Beckett’s script and Briggs’ performance reminds us that difficulty is part of being a guardian, and that we are more than our worst moments.
This is a road trip narrative with a twist, and its intimate conclusion is beautiful: a theatrical trick that shouldn’t be spoiled summons images of both country and catharsis. On opening night, Beckett’s real-life father sat in the front row, and he jumped on stage for the curtain call, looking thrilled with the love letter from his daughter and the love from the audience; he danced, we clapped, and everyone was in tears.
Theatre exists to show us who we are, to remind us of our collective dignity, humanity, and capacity for empathy. Which Way Home delivers on all fronts.