Sunday, April 12, 2015

Kill the Messenger

Photo by Brett Boardman

Belvoir St Theatre, present KILL THE MESSENGER, by Nakkiah Lui, in the Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir St, Surry Hills. 14 Feb - 8 March.

This is a catch-up blog.

KILL THE MESSENGER, is the second play presented by Belvoir St Theatre, by Nakkiah Lui. The first was, THIS HEAVEN, presented in 2013.

This is a one act play played on a blank black-box stage (Set Design by Ralph Myers) with a bench along both side walls framing the space, lit with theatrical nous and flair by Kate Sfetkidis, making clear demarcations for narrative location, and Directed well, by Anthea Williams.

Ms Lui has written a play about what she views as an 'injustice' that illustrates embedded, historical, institutional racism from a dominant culture and the effects it has, is having, on the Indigenous population. And that, still, nothing is being done to alter that circumstance. She tells us in her Writer's notes that
As I wrote KILL THE MESSENGER, I really I wanted to see you. I want to see you and I want to talk to you. I want you to hear me and I want you to know you can be heard. I wrote KILL THE MESSENGER for you and I want you to leave and do something. Anything. Please.
Ms Lui introduces us to two stories, one from hearsay and one from a personalised experience and knowing. One concerns an Indigenous sister and brother dealing with the consequences of drug addiction, both past and present. Both these siblings endured and watched an addictive habit destroying their mother, and now Paul (Lasarus Ratuere) is similarly in the closing spiral of addiction and an unrecognised cancer diagnosis whilst being watched by a desperate, seemingly helpless-to-act Harley (Katie Beckett). We watch the conclusion of this story and meet Alex (Matthew Backer), a nurse working in ER at a major institution, a hospital, and the consequence of his response to the problems that Paul presented. This is the hearsay story elaborated by the writer to reveal her premise in classic dramaturgical patterns of show and reveal.

The other story is based around the story of Ms Lui's Nana, who died, after an accident in her neglected home run by the AHO - Aboriginal Housing Office. This is told in a kind of verbatim process by the writer herself, who also 'inhabits' the role of Nakkiah, and so literally tells us the story with documentary video-images of Nana and the family and the house. In her own words, from her own mouth. Ms Lui is both the actual writer and the actor playing the writer. What is true and what is poetic license for the dramaturgy of the play text became for me a paradox and, consequently, I never really, solved my objective response to the piece. Subjectively, I comprehended the message from this messenger, and it was a 'worthy' message, but felt uncomfortably manipulated. One knows and one hears what Ms Lui and this company are saying but, really, what can one do. Get angry, it seems. What can one do? Some answer, some answers, please. Any guide, please, Anything. Please, Ms Lui. Your anger and writing maybe not, is not, I have concluded, enough.

Last year I watched a verbatim play, THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS, by Alana Valentine and Rhonda Dixon-Grosvenor, which was a recollection of an Indigenous activist, 'Chicka' Dixon, that told of the fight against institutionalised racism in this country. It told us, it showed us what could be done to achieve change. It, also, told us of the collateral damage such action may have on the participants and their immediate support and loved ones. Those of us who do not know - ignorant of our joint history - imagine that we must invent the 'wheel'. The 'wheel', believe it or not has been made, as THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS demonstrated last year, and the consequences of making it may be the inhibitor to contemporary action. Who knows? It certainly gave me pause. Recently, I watched the American/British film called SELMA (2014), Directed by Ava DuVernay, Written by Paul Webb, concerning the fateful march for African/American voting rights, led by Martin Luther King Jr, from Selma to Montgomery and of its consequences - both the big-picture and small picture consequences. I was shown a problem and I was shown some actions to change it. Are these two examples of what Ms Lui is searching for? If it is, then, actions such as the above historical choices give us the way for/to change. Both, THE FOX AND THE FREEDOM FIGHTERS and SELMA  educated and moved and motivated me to think what would, could, I do for the causes that strike at me. Or, is there another way? Perhaps, the way of Mahatma Gandhi? What do you think, Ms Lui? Is it enough for you to tell me of your personal history, and anger, and for me to have empathy for it and expect me to do something about it, without you having some idea to direct me how to help? Is your personal anger enough, to give me motivation, empathy and the courage? Particularly, the courage. I may feel 'guilt' with you standing in front of me after watching KILL THE MESSENGER, but am left feeling bewildered and impotent about what I should, can, do.

In the Director's Note, Ms Williams tells us:
In KILL THE MESSENGER the political can't be separated from the personal and the institutions this generation has inherited are still killing Indigenous people. While developing this play I liked to think of it as three unfinished stories and a really angry woman. She is angry, but she is also full of heart and wit and passion. ... 
These are without doubt important issues for our nation as a whole. Ms Lui reveals her heart, wit and passion, along with, writ large, very large, her anger.

It is this anger that manipulates the play out of my ability to truly appreciate it beyond the personal pain of the writer/actor. The circular argument/attacks on all and sundry without anybody accepting any responsibility for what is happening is what frustrated me to the message. Writing this play in this tone maybe not a solution. Or, even an invitation, a sufficient urging, to jointly find a solution and put it to action.

As Nakkia says in the final speech in the play:
          ... My thoughts aren't clear and I don't know why bad things happen and how to fix it, but I'm     telling you this ...

Peter,  the boyfriend to Nakkiah, played by Sam O'Sullivan to Nakkiah, played by Nakkiah Lui :
... What I'm saying is, look at it from a different perspective. Try and see some good ... some kind of ... light ... some hope ... in the situation.
Later Nakkiah says directly to the audience as writer/actor (as real person, Nakkiah Lui, too?)
... I'm not telling this to you tonight because I want to. I don't particularly like it. It's been hard and it's truth and it hurts. I'm telling you this because I don't know what else to give you that will make you think about or try and change the life we live - all I have is the truth and this is the most I can give. ...
I felt, by the end of the night, that it was not enough. It was too, self-absorbed, self affected a telling, for my 'habits' to be moved by this theatrical experience. Maybe, the 'sword' is mightier than the pen? Maybe actions speak louder than words? Shall we ask 'Chicka' Dixon? Shall we ask Mr King Jr? Shall we ask Gandhi?

Ms Williams demonstrated for me her gift as a Director (FORGET ME NOT and OLD MAN). The production was fluid and effectively staged. Matthew Backer gave a complex and movingly conflicted performance as Alex, the hospital nurse, with great subtlety, caught between his human compassion and the institutionalised necessities for survival. Too, Sam O'Sullivan in a very difficult role as the foil to an emotionally unstable partner, found a way to gain our empathy and comprehension of the dilemma faced by Peter in his two scenes - that he leaves her, however, was an understandable outcome. Nakkiah Lui, Katie Beckett and Lasarus Rautec were able to give us the surface of what was happening if with not much internal revelation, in the action, as to the why. The history, the specific back-story that would produce such word and action, essentially, lacked sufficient sophistication of playing, technique, as storytellers to really communicate to us, except as speakers/recitors of text.

KILL THE MESSENGER was an interesting experience in the theatre, I was kind of fascinated, intrigued by the form, if not with the treatment of the undoubtedly raw content, although I felt this production was still an early draft of a possibly more interesting play to come. I wondered, just how many drafts there were before this play was curated for the Upstairs Theatre? (Seven, by the first day of rehearsal, I think?) Was there a text to rehearse or a text to be re-written on the first day of official rehearsal? Ideas for a text rather than a mostly finished text? If it were the latter, it could account for some of the acting not having the usual attention that I have seen come from the hands of Ms Williams.

On the first Friday after opening night, I was in a theatre that was only half full. I hope others caught the play later in the short season to be able to debate the issues and the stated objectives and conclusions drawn by the artists below. A play to change what indigenous plays are about? Big claims. I wonder.

Cost $72.00, plus $12 for program/script.


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