Since Ali Died

The word poet, derives from the Greek, poiētēs, meaning he who makes, fashions, creates.

It’s a fitting description for Omar Musa, who uses as his materials – verse, music, story and us, the audience – to ‘make’ Since Ali Died, on stage before us, with us.

His tools are many. He’s a disarming and sometimes self-deprecating humour, essential when you need to take the temperature of the room quickly and react to it even quicker. He’s a true talent as a lyricist, hip hop artist, performer, raconteur and poet (the ‘writer of verses’ kind). He is also possessed of an easy going kind of ‘relatability’.

In Since Ali Died, Musa weaves together songs from the album of the same name, poetry from his collection, Millefiore, along with new material and playful exchanges with the audience. As cliché as it sounds, he takes us on a journey … kind of literally.

Picture a boat with Musa and his hero, boxing icon Muhammad Ali, travelling down a “restless, brown river” (Musa’s words) through memories of Musa’s boyhood in his hometown of Queanbeyan. He draws us into a hazy imagery of beautiful, sometimes painful, often really funny, always believable, stories and raps of his father, mother, troubled friends, and of a deep, unrequited love.

The river, of course, is an allegory of Musa himself, of his own struggles and his own path in life as the artist he is, one that has seen him branded “un-Australian” and placed him at the receiving end of the worst kind of vitriol for daring to call out racism and other injustices he has seen and lived. True to the essence of the hip-hop and spoken word genres it straddles, Since Ali Died, is as personal as it is political. And it’s very, very current. I took my teenage daughter along and she loved it just as much as I did.

She loved the beats the most, and that it was “personal and emotional”. My inner muso (or maybe it’s my inner ‘Westie’) loved the bass vibrating up through the bench seats of the Stables Theatre and Musa in rapper mode, most of all.

As a musician, he’s even better live than on recording, bringing a bigger energy to the songs, intense but still contained, through his movements as much as through his voice. (He has this one move – a pivot or a kind of pop – that he does when the beat drops or at a break … and it’s really, really, good).

And Sarah Corry? Love. Love. Love. She joined Musa for two songs and was just gorgeous. Smooth, rich but sweet, sweet vocals. She also brought a real counter-balance to the masculine energy in the room.

Since Ali Died is at Parramatta Riverside Theatres from 22-25 Jan and I’m tempted to see it again there in the knowing that the audience might be more of a ‘home-crowd’. It’s the sort of show that needs a certain type of energy from the audience to feed it, and Musa is the sort of performer that goes from really, really, good to pretty fricken brilliant with that.

First published on Audrey Journal

Blak Box Four Winds

Blacktown Showground Precinct is very pretty and very welcoming on this ordinary Sydney summer evening.

Families sit at benches. Little ones run through the water park. The basketball courts are buzzing. Boardwalks stretch through the reeds and over the still water, invitingly. Getting there was easy. Parking was a breeze, too. You get a handy map link and directions emailed to you the day before your session.

There’s a café, a bar by donation set up by Urban Theatre Projects and a temporary performance space for talks and live music – part of the Sunset Sessions that compliment the Blak Box Four Winds installation.

But what I was looking forward to the most, for days beforehand, was setting my phone to flight mode and the promise of silence and stillness.

Before we’re led over to the purpose-built Blak Box, we’re briefed on what to expect and what is expected of us.

We enter, find our seats, get comfortable. The door is closed. The light is low. Some people shut their eyes. Immediately the senses are heightened.

The sand feels nice beneath my feet. I feel more grounded. I notice blades of grass poking through the sandy floor, a curious reminder that there is life growing inside and sprouting inside this seemingly inanimate space we’ve all found ourselves in.

Then, the sounds of piano, violin and clapsticks flow from different points behind the walls, followed by the voices of people in dialogue. The four featured artists, all Blacktown locals, are elders Uncle Wes Marne and Auntie Edna Watson, and two young leaders, Savarna Russell and Shaun Millwood.

They talk about identity, fears, family, intergenerational trauma, institutional abuse, culture, language and conservation. The young ask the elders questions. They all share memories. Every breath, sigh, silence and inflection of the voice is amplified in the stillness and low light of the box. It’s an intimate and personal deep listening experience. An emotional one at times, too.

The spoken excerpts are broken up with song and music by Emma Donovan and Eric Avery. At times the music is a lament. At times it’s hopeful, with Emma’s voice like a balm, beautiful, soulful, grainy and deep. There’s an earthiness to every note she sings, a resolve and strength in the resonance of every. single. note. The music tells the same story as the conversations we hear, bridging the contemporary with the traditional; the young with the old.

By the end of the 45 mins in the box, a deep calm had set in. The feeling stayed with me for a long time afterwards. And of course, what still lingers, days after experiencing Blak Box Four Winds, are my thoughts around the very real issues it explores, like how our increasing reliance on digital means of communication is replacing face to face, interpersonal, interaction.

And then of course the question: Is this contributing to the erosion of knowledge and culture across generations or is it helping to conserve it and make it more accessible?

In the words of its curator, Daniel Browning, Four Winds “is a speculation about the future as much as a recollection of the past”.

I felt it in that way too. As January 26 approaches and as plans about how to spend this public holiday are made all around, opinions on dates and on the difference between celebration and commemoration will abound. Maybe this is the perfect time to set your phone to flight mode. To sit in stillness, listen deeply and hear the truth in the stories, histories and messages of First Nations people.

First published on Audrey Journal

Right here. Right now.

In the program note, Artistic Director, Rosie Dennis describes Urban Theatre Project’s latest site-based, experiential and multifarious arts offering as an “ode” to the history and people of Blacktown.

And Right Here. Right Now. (RHRN) definitely felt like an ode to place for me. Not an elaborate, exultant or pompous kind of ode (something the word might conjure for some) but a musing, light-hearted, deep-feeling and honest kind of ode. Think Pablo Neruda’s Odes to Common Things.

Part installation and performance, part urban guided tour, part welcome dinner, RHRN is a bit like a choose-your-own-adventure where you’re not quite sure what the journey holds or how it finishes. You’re both observer and player moving through a series of scenes or sites…

RHRN is a joyful, honest, intriguing, curious, playful and delicious experience all at once. But it’s real delight lies in it’s praise of the ‘common’ – everyday places and people are remembered and hero-ed, and well they should be.

Read my write-up for Audrey Journal in full here

 

The Girl/The Woman

This will sound corny but my biggest takeaway from The Girl/The Woman, was LOVE. I left the theatre with that unmistakeable feeling of a warm, tingling, full, content heart. And this was after spending much of the previous 90 mins either laughing so hard I cried, grooving in my seat to belly dance music or Beyonce, and/or ululating to egg on the audience participation. (OMG…. how embarrassing for that poor guy but what a freaken champ!)

Aanisa Vylet’s play is a coming-of-age story. It’s universal in the protagonist’s painful awkwardness and insecurities in adolescence. It’s universal in her search for belonging, for independence, for freedom and in her struggle to reckon with external and internalised pressures and expectations. 

But in the details of the story, it is oh so local. A girl from Punchbowl, second-generation Lebanese-Australian, trying to fit in at uni as an arts student, wrestling with cultural and religious pressures at home, living almost two parallel lives, moving overseas to pursue a career and some sense of independence. So local. And so close to home for many of us. 

Beyond the coming-of-age theme (or alongside it rather) The Girl/The Woman draws you into the beautiful, complex, heartfelt, wistful relationship between the protagonist and her mother. We see history threatening to repeat itself. We see a mother’s over-protectiveness and judgement, and her fear of being shamed by her community. And we see sacrifice, protection, acceptance, and love. So much love.

The final scene, is so moving that even though I understood very little (in a literal sense) with much of the scene played out in Arabic, I felt no sense that I was missing out on part of the story. It was easy to imagine what was being said. I could make out the meaning through the pitch, the inflection, the rhythm, dynamic and pace of the voices and in each gesture and movement. And I loved, loved, loved the way the play moved between English and Arabic throughout. It felt natural and authentic. Like these characters wouldn’t have spoken in any other way. Far from alienating the non-Arabic speaking audience members, it drew us further into the story.

Diversity in the arts is a hot topic right now – we know that. There’s been lots written and said in recent times about representation in the arts – about how important it is for people of all backgrounds and persuasions to see people like themselves on the stage and on screen – performing, creating, telling their own stories. We know this is important of course. But sometimes the conversation around the lack of diverse stories and of representation becomes so political and tokenistic that the art itself plays second fiddle to a political or social message. This isn’t the case at all with The Girl/The Woman. This is hilarious, heartwarming, moving, entertaining, and wildly talented physical theatre in it’s own right – the “diverse” nature of it is just one part of it’s delight.

The season has just ended but look out for it around the traps in the future. I think (and hope) it has a long life ahead. In the meantime, read about The Girl/The Woman in this insightful piece in Folk Magazine here.

Forge: Intercultural Contemporary Performance

Front row in the Lennox at Riverside. An unfinished pentagram demarcates the floor. The stage is bare apart from it and the floor mics. I coaxed my thirteen-year-old daughter along, though she’d rather be listening to K-pop on Spotify. We watch Annalouise Paul in her latest complete solo work, Forge, and on the way home unpick the dance, music and narrative elements of the show. We talk about Annalouise’s beautiful and poised presence on stage, we wonder if the work is autobiographical and guess at its meaning…

Dance maker, Annalouise Paul, has enjoyed a long and successful career as an independent artist in Australia and internationally. Her artistic practice is inspired by her own cultural inheritance and by the concept of identity as an ever-evolving construct. Off the stage Annalouise is well-known for her activist work in the arts – advocating for culturally diverse practices and artists. She currently runs the Intercultural Dialogues Facebook group with 700 members globally – a place for discussion about arts/culture and for connection across cultures.

I ask Annalouise if she describes Forge as intercultural work. She replies, “I suppose it is. It examines two distinct dance languages that sit inside my body and very much create a tension, and the potential heresy of merging a tradition like flamenco with contemporary dance”. I ask if Forge fits neatly into one genre. She says it is “dance-music-theatre”, explaining that genres are for others to decide, and for boxes needing to be ticked. For her, music can’t be separated from dance, nor dance from story.

I ask a few more questions. Annalouise is as articulate, dynamic and deep-feeling in words as she is in performance. Read on for the full interview and my endnotes. First published in The Music Trust’s Loudmouth Magazine here.
Continue reading

Four Australian artists you really should be following

They’re artists, activists, peacemakers, protestors and performers. They’re word whittlers – especially skilled in carving against the grain. Their art is hewn from music and poetry and their own cultural inheritance. And what excites me the most about them is that they’re re-mapping the borders that define what it is to look/sound/be an Australian artist today.

They’ve been getting some well-deserved attention in the mainstream media but if you haven’t heard of them yet, take some time to follow some of the links below. But let that just be a start!
Continue reading

The writings that sowed the seed for this blog

THE TRIBE

Originally published here. February 1st 2016

Last Sunday I went to the theatre. It was a show that had caught my attention earlier in the week in my Facebook feed. Urban Theatre Projects was posting about it. The Belvoir was posting about it. It had popped up in several status updates of friends, too.

The name didn’t give much away. But the promo shots spoke volumes. At least they did to me. Now, I’m a keen consumer of the arts and culture, from screens to stages and concert halls to the streets; and I’m a self-defined ‘cultural omnivore’, so my palette thrives on the alternative and diverse, but when a man clearly of ‘Middle-Eastern appearance’ (actor Hazem Shammas) hits my feed accompanied by words like theatreBelvoirSurry Hills and Muslim-Australian, it tweaks my interest in a special kind of way. Read on and you’ll understand why. Continue reading