Too often, artistic attempts to navigate interculturality – to convey the lived experiences of Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers and other marginalised communities – don’t quite delve deep enough to bring their complex realities to light. Creating and executing a performance embodying such stories is not an easy task; after all, the bottom line – pun unintended – is getting bums on seats.
Tackling confronting and emotive themes with authenticity and courage as well as artistic integrity in a way that leaves the audience spellbound and stirred to action rather than shamed or embedded in resistance takes a deeply intelligent approach. Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk], by dance theatre company Marrugeku, is the epitome of this kind of intelligence.
So riveting that an hour and 20 minutes flash by unnoticed, the Marrugeku cast’s riveting and high-energy performance is paced to perfection. Measured at the start, the slower pace simmers with suppressed anger, terror and resistance, gradually building into explosive, transformative momentum.
The oppressiveness of incarceration is brilliantly conveyed through a clever screening device, the performers standing with their backs to the audience to look up at a camera that projects them onto a small corner high on the backdrop, their image contained inside a small rectangle. It is both surveillance and imprisonment, and under the eye of the camera in their small screen cell, the performers alternate between anger, terror, desperation, defiance and despair.
Flashes of humour, playfulness, of pride and even joyful abandon provide moments of respite, but also serve to remind us that this is not about victimhood, but about government-sanctioned oppression, and that these lives and stories matter.
There is little to fault with any aspect of the performance; the choreography, the soundscape and music, the spoken words that individuate each cast member and their different lived experiences as Indigenous Australians, asylum seekers or members of the LGBTQI+ community.
The lighting is ingeniously integrated, the simple metallic backdrop lit at times in a way that renders it sheer, revealing cast members behind it strapped into gurneys and dehumanised by spit hoods, or leaning against their metal caging with their arms raised and crossed in a gesture of defiance, while also suggesting handcuffed imprisonment. Later turned into blue light, it transforms the trim on the performers’ clothing into vibrant fluorescence, the trim designs at times evoking the setting sun of the Aboriginal flag, at others transforming them into the symbolic insignia of authoritarian uniforms.
Props – such as a section of the metal backdrop that becomes a table and an opening; the tinkling chandeliers that descend from the fly loft to set the scenes where cast members act out, resist or break down under the strain of attempting to adhere to the conventions set by a white hegemonic society – are beautifully executed, meaningful and potent.
Yawuru Elder and Western Australian Senator Patrick Dodson, founding chair of the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation and Commissioner into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, is patron and cultural advisor to Marrugeku, a company he describes as being “at the global forefront of cultural expressive integrity”. In Yawuru, “Jurrungu ngan-ga” means “straight talk”. This performance’s straight talk is – in the words of those who drew up the Uluru Statement From the Heart – an invitation to forge a path to a better future for this intercultural nation. The evolution of humanity, its need for greater wisdom and maturity, surely depends on the ability to listen deeply, to embrace such stories with respect, understanding and compassion.
We cannot look away from these realities once the performance is over. Without action, the performance is all it remains – a performance. The audience has listened, has seen. Once the curtain call is over, there is an announcement: there are QR codes in the foyer directing us to a list of resources on Marrugeku’s website that enable us to become a part of this much needed action.
It is the perfect final moment to round off a heart-shaking, unforgettable and deeply intelligent performance, skilfully executed. It is beautiful, angry, defiant, joyful, full of swag and of life. A shining highlight of the 2023 Adelaide Festival.
Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk] was performed at the Odeon Theatre from March 10-12.
Read more Adelaide Festival coverage here on InReview.
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