Bankstown Arts Centre, January 15
You could be forgiven for thinking the stage has become a soapbox, rather than being a surprising, sacred and profane space, where actors convey stories about the sad, weird, cruel, funny, compassionate, sexy, visionary and gripping ways in which humans interact. If a play’s impetus was not to illuminate human silliness and suffering theatrically, but to shout about a pet issue, the chances of the audience being moved, mesmerised or transported shrink rapidly.
To bounce from Black Cockatoo to Lady Tabouli to Black Drop Effect in less than a week is to feel somewhat soapboxed round the ears. The good news is that Nardi Simpson’s Black Drop Effect is the finest piece of writing of the three, having most successfully sublimated her issue of choice: the infinite implications for First Nations people of Cook’s visit to Botany Bay and the First Fleet’s arrival.
“Geez, I hate re-enactments,” says Beenie (Marlene Cummins), enunciating part of Simpson’s point: white-fella celebrations of anything to do with “discovery”, invasion and colonisation plumb the depths of rubbing First Nations people’s noses in calamity. But that could be shouted from a soapbox. Thankfully Simpson uses the stage to illuminate a theatrical vision of black-fella culture surviving against the odds.
The keys to her play are Beenie and her brother Binno (William McPherson), Kurnell-based elders who are roped into adding indigenous flavour to an Invasion/Australia Day “celebration” by Pip (Jane Phegan), a council bureaucrat with cultural pretensions.
Simpson’s particular achievement via Binno is to create a sense of the timelessness underpinning the world’s oldest continuous culture. Cook (Anthony Hunt) observed in his diaries how “unsettling” he found the “stillness and quiet”. Yet for Binno that stillness and quiet provide the context to feel at one with everything from stingrays to white cockatoos; with all the teeming life inhabiting land, air and water.
Director Felix Cross uses three younger actors to play those who come to learn dance and lore from Binno: Googoorewon Knox, Isaiah Kennedy and Ken Weldon, and unfortunately they aren’t up to masking the playwright’s most overtly didactic lines. If all carried McPherson and Cummins’ conviction, the soapbox would miraculously evaporate.
Unlike the neighbouring trains. Some 15 of them interrupted this outdoor performance, begging the question of whether the venue choice was another “soapbox” decision.