Julia Readett reviews a play for the Sydney Festival that sets a collision of cultures and struggles against the backdrop of a Western Sydney car-park.
It’s 6.30pm on a weeknight in Blacktown and the station is crammed with commuters coming home, mothers carrying their groceries to feed their families and kids gearing up for a big night, probably testing out the new El Jannah that’s just popped up around the corner. It’s the perfect night for the theatre.
When we think of the theatre, we’re probably inclined to think of red curtains, getting dressed up, heading into the city and spending money we don’t have. Home Country was completely unrecognizable from this middle-class imaginary. Instead of a stage, the actors performed in an emptied car park, leading us up each level as the stories continued. Instead of sipping champagne through pursed lips, there was a ginormouscommunal feast where audience members were forced to shed any pretensions that might have been left and share a vegetarian meal with each other.
This was theatre and storytelling like I’d never experienced before. Home Country consists of three different plays that are split into three parts, each story culminating dramatically and beautifully on the top of Blacktown car-park. In the first story, Blacktown Angels by Yorta Yorta and Kurnai woman Andrea James, we’re introduced to our guide for the night and star of the first play, Uncle Cheeky played by proud Murri actor, Billy McPherson. Uncle’s story began living up to his namesake with cheeky humour and plenty of hilarious jokes directed at the audience who were clearly from ‘out of town.’ As his story unfolded, he became incredibly vulnerable to audience, revealing his struggle with alcohol and gambling addiction and sharing stories of living in a colonised country. His story was entwined with Angel, played by Shakira Clanton, who haunted him with a half-formed memory where he was complicit with the child abuse she experienced.
We were also introduced to Pita, a young queer Greek boy from Blacktown, played by Johnathon Nicholas. In this story, Pita reflects on the death of his mother, leading him to realised how aligned he was not only with her, but her birth-place Katouna, in the Greek Islands. Steps to Katouna by Peter Polites, is poetic and raw as we follow the thoughts of young Pita through a headset that enriched his dialogue with the sounds of the Greek Islands.
The third play was called Zephora and Ali and incredibly endearing and hilarious story about a pair of Australian colleagues, one Arab and one who’s family are from Sierra Leone. On this journey, an awkward workplace setting provides the backdrop to a clunky and somewhat hurtful exchange between the two. In an effort to bond with Zephora, Ali links their struggles together as People of Colour and children of immigrants to Australia. Their dialogue is a rich exploration of privilege and power today: Arab people are overrepresented and under-consulted in the media, however, African women are made invisible by the media, and demonised by white supremacist society, as Zephora shared.
Home Country was a hugely ambitious and awe-inspiring project from the Urban Theatre Project, seamlessly taking over 70 people through an eight-story car-park, feeding us, entertaining us, challenging us and dancing with us. The Performing Arts are alive and well in the Western Suburbs, and Blacktown Arts Centre, the performances’ creative partner, is a great place to start supporting if you’re as keen as I am to dismantle the elitist stereotype of theatre and creativity.
Home Country taught me that “home” in Western Sydney is multifaceted. It’s Indigenous ancestral lands, it’s shelter from a country at war, it’s the best grilled chicken in the world (“better than Lebanon,” as Ali says), it’s overprotective parents, it’s heartbreak and awkwardness, it’s growing up where diversity and difference is the norm.