In the neighbourhood

Virginia Baxter, Bankstown:Live

Mohammed Lelo, Toby Martin, Phu Tran, Alex Hadchiti, Songs from Northam Avenue, Bankstown:Live

Mohammed Lelo, Toby Martin, Phu Tran, Alex Hadchiti, Songs from Northam Avenue, Bankstown:Live

Mohammed Lelo, Toby Martin, Phu Tran, Alex Hadchiti, Songs from Northam Avenue, Bankstown:Live

Around dusk we file into the Northam Avenue backyard of local resident David Cranston for the first of our Bankstown:Live experiences. Offered Aerogard to ward off the evening’s likely bloodletting, we enter past the scented gum, turn left at the passionfruit vine, past the cactus flower, to spaciously uneven rows of unmatched chairs. I step over the self-seeded spinach to my seat and take in the suburban staging—the ever evocative wire screen door, the porch peeling paint, the empty birdcage, the sombre tool-shed—door ajar. The sky is huge, birds zooming overhead and there’s a scent of eucalyptus. This might just be enough theatre for me.

Hazem Shammas, The Tribe, Bankstown:Live

Hazem Shammas, The Tribe, Bankstown:Live

Hazem Shammas, The Tribe, Bankstown:Live

But there’s more. Performer Hazem Shammas appears under fluoro light to recount episodes from Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe—in conventional storytelling mode with subtle physicality and occasional musical accompaniment from Oonagh Sherrard on cello. I enjoyed reading Ahmad’s successful novella, a richly detailed evocation of everyday life from the perspective of Bani, the youngest in a family who are all members of a small Muslim sect who fled to Australia before the civil war in Lebanon. In this brisk 40-minute adaptation by Ahmad and director Janice Muller, Shammas at a microphone deftly inhabits the persona of Bani at various ages. Intensely physical memories range from his grandmother Tayta’s belly to a vivid account of a wild family wedding, alongside reflections on Shia and Sunni heritage and a darker, almost surreal episode involving a death in the family. Meanwhile, under the portico Sherrard adds a recurrent melody interspersed with glides and percussive taps on the cello strings underlining Bani’s emotional recollections.

Further down the street we sink into possibly too comfortable lounges laid out in the front yard of Wally Arends, another Bankstown local. As resident artist over two years, singer-songwriter Toby Martin has become familiar with these people and their houses, hanging out at the coffee shop, picking up strands of conversation to connect with his own life and weave into lyrics for Songs from Northam Avenue. His musical collaborators are first Anh Linh Pham on Vietnamese zither (a relative of the koto and other Asian instruments) and Phu Tran on Vietnamese monochord (with its almost Theremin warbling), then Alex Hadchiti on oud and keyboard and Mohammed Lelo on the Middle-Eastern quanun, a fascinating zither-like instrument with 81 strings; Martin describes it as the antecedent of the Western piano. There’s a rich layering of sounds in each of the trios, although the microtones of Vietnamese instruments are not always an easy fit with Martin’s Indie folk. The songs range across a man’s life from the 30s to the present, the waiting lover (the monochord gently soaring like an electric guitar), a Lebanese father’s melancholy awareness of his son’s ignorance of the brutal realities of Middle-Eastern conflict and the tension in a couple over English pronunciation. There are unusual tales, striking word pictures and some immediately catchy melodies.

Nancy and Albert Oh and friends, Bansktown:Live

Nancy and Albert Oh and friends, Bansktown:Live

Nancy and Albert Oh and friends, Bansktown:Live

The Urban Theatre Project (UTP) producing model is a mix of “lead artists” and others from within the community and outside it working with the multifarious talents of local participants to collaboratively shape ideas and display them to best advantage.

In “a creative spirit of community, diversity and togetherness” (program note) members of the extensive Filipino community working with artist Alwin Reamillo and builder David Hawkes constructed a decorated bamboo Hopping Spirit House (in the spirit of Bayanihan, the traditional practice of community group work in rural Philippines). Following the traditional Aboriginal “Welcome to Country” by Darug elder Uncle Steve Williams, in a symbolic representation of the power of community, the huge structure is hoisted onto many shoulders to be transported down the street with Williams leading the way.

This clears the way for collaborating artists Emma Saunders, Nancy and Albert Oh to assemble locals who dance the rumba so lightly on the asphalt you’d think it was sprung and later demonstrate a joyous “Hokey Pokey for the 21st Century.”

Under a Hill’s Hoist, audience don earphones for The Last Word, a series of monologues written by seven Western Sydney residents, all reflecting on a departed friend or relative. Each piece has been carefully crafted, sensitively voiced by professional performers and accompanied by James Brown’s pulsing music. It’s a poignant listening experience.

Sophia Brous, Bankstown:Live

Sophia Brous, Bankstown:Live

Sophia Brous, Bankstown:Live

In stark contrast to the mostly modest houses in the street, late in the evening we find ourselves at the fence line of an opulent two-storey villa. On the concrete driveway is the prone body of a woman in white. It’s Sofia Brous, composer and “genre-defying chanteuse” who’s worked with members of the community who are called upon this time to volunteer their lullabies. Tonight she sleepwalks among faux pillars and water features, ‘waking’ to sing from her collection of songs in nine languages. As Brous sings, a woman near me mouths the words under her breath. We’re not provided with the cultures of origin or the words to the songs, so we guess, cued by linguistic cadences and, not least, the playing of UK multi-instrumental collaborating artists David Coulter and Leo Abrahams, whose vivid accompaniment from the garage evokes Asian flutes, African electric guitar, eastern European zither and much more. Brous, who has an impressive vocal range (barely warranting the more than ample reverb), ornaments each song with precise gestures and soothes us with the strangely familiar melodies she has gathered.

And then there are films! Van is a short animated cautionary tale by Vinh Nguyen referencing his father’s journey from Vietnam to Australia. UTP director Rosie Dennis has directed Bre & Back, a beautifully observed portrait of the lives of four Indigenous women including former local resident and cultural adviser, Lily Shearer and her mother Noeleen, now living in Brewarrina.

Banguras Family, Mervyn Bishop, Uncle Steve Williams, Bankstown:Live

Banguras Family, Mervyn Bishop, Uncle Steve Williams, Bankstown:Live

Banguras Family, Mervyn Bishop, Uncle Steve Williams, Bankstown:Live

I couldn’t beat the queue to take a turn in the Family Portraits booth on the footpath. Here photographer Joanne Saad staged a gathering with one of four local families. Audience members were invited to enter, join in a conversation and a portrait. On the night I visited, before a backdrop of colourful cloths, five members of the Banguras family from Sierra Leone were seated around a coffee table displaying family photographs. With infinite grace, the Banguras entertained their array of temporary guests appearing very much “at home” as indeed did we all on this hot January night in Northam Avenue, Bankstown—locals and blow-ins alike.

Urban Theatre Projects, Bankstown:Live, 150-160 Northam Avenue, Bankstown, artistic director, Rosie Dennis, 22-25 Jan

RealTime issue #125 Feb-March 2015 pg. 16

© Virginia Baxter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

23 February 2015