Journey into the unexpected

Bryoni Trezise travels to Urban Theatre Projects’ Back Home

NOMISe, Shannon Williams, Back Home

NOMISe, Shannon Williams, Back Home

NOMISe, Shannon Williams, Back Home

It is a slow and gentle drive through Darug land as the bus makes its turns in evening summer. This is the country of the Burra-matta-gal Clan, the Eel Creek People. To our left is the site of a great corroboree ground where the men of neighbouring clans used to meet and hold ceremony. Further ahead is the Parramatta Eels Leagues Club, a different kind of ceremonial meeting ground.

This suburban meander is the entry into Back Home, Urban Theatre Projects’ Sydney Festival production directed by Alicia Talbot and co-devised by its outstanding male performers Aaron Fa’Aoso, NOMISe, Leo Tanoi and Shannon Williams. We begin by coursing from Parramatta to Blacktown with Uncle Wes Marne as tour guide. This is hunter country, we are told. Pemulwuy, a great resistance fighter of the Bidigal clan would burn crops and lead raids in these parts. I look through the window to see stretches of highway now blotted with chain store fluorescence. On the bus monitor inside, Sam James’ video plays a spool of gathered aspects of this place: lilies bobbing in marshland, the high sandstone leanings of Parramatta Gaol.

Back Home explores experiences of manhood, ethnicity and oppression deeply tied to cultural territories of race and place in Australia. Cast along the liminal tracks of past and present, the bus ride pulls ancient custom into the gritty realities of this time so that we arrive prepared for a newer scene: a contemporary centre on the outskirts, a suburban backyard. Here is the occasion of a 28th birthday party and a night of wild and courageous unravelling. Back Home is taking me into territory that I have never visited.

Aaron, NOMISe, Leo and Shannon are old friends reuniting over beer and a barbecue after years apart. The mood is light: NOMISe, king of hip-hop, dances and raps at his radio DJ turntable. He gives a lovesong dedication to Belinda “who I love—not!”. A hint of despair undercuts his sarcasm. The men ruck and rumble, play air basketball, crack jokes about each other’s sisters and their “bootie” (women). They sing and joke until they start to hit sore points, start to get rough with their teasing: “You’re not slapping [your new woman] around like you used to slap Sharon around?” The neighbour’s dog barks, the barbecue sizzles to burning and the drinking continues.

There is the sense that hardness sits beneath all this sweaty, bullish machismo. NOMISe’s partner has left him; Leo is an alcoholic whose brothers were killed in an accident of their own making; Shannon works hard to have any access to his kids; and Aaron, back from success in the US, is trying to put his past of domestic abuse behind him. These are difficult lives. The precision in the direction of Back Home is in its rhythm of mounting tension and release, a repetitive cycle that builds and builds to create a sense of growing unease without any promise of escape. The men bounce off each other’s chests, fists, racial slurs. What begins as taunt or biff grows to exploding point: Leo jams Aaron against a tree, holding his throat to suffocation point. This moment is deeply disturbing not only for its very real violence, but in the way it erupts out of nowhere. Its aftermath is a stunned suspension: Aaron vomits against a wall while Leo screams in a silencing white rage.

The questions that drive this auspicious reunion are microcosms of macrocosmic stories in Australia. Whose culture has had it worse? Whose is more oppressed? How does oppression feed more oppression, how does it feed anger, cultural isolation and violence? “Your people have been getting fucked with for the last 300 years,” yells NOMISe, “My people have been getting fucked with since the beginning of time.” The grimness of the stakes in this argument makes enemies out of ‘brothers’ and shows how colonial violence can also beget ethnic violence, interracial violence and media violence. This intricate web of wrong upon wrong feels so insurmountable by the close of the performance that the characters leave stunned, as we do, by the weight of what has unravelled and the thickness of this mess.

The performers make an impressive foursome who find a common dynamism through their individuality, striking a delicate balance of stillness, frenetic energy, quiet, story and song. Shannon and Aaron share a soulful interpretation of a traditional Indigenous dance, stamping its rhythms out to country rock. NOMISe raps: “Fight, fight, fight for your rights”, and together the men chorus No Woman, No Cry around acoustic guitar and fire. The yearning for connection, love and fulfilment felt by these men and their expressions of grief and rage offer a powerful and provocative statement about the interconnectedness of male relationships, racial interrelationships and the embedded, cultural silences of this country. I left Blacktown to drive home to Clovelly understanding that I’d never really gone to a place like that before.

Urban Theatre Projects, Back Home: A Backyard in Blacktown, director Alicia Talbot, performer-devisors Aaron Fa’Aoso, NOMISe, Leo Tanoi, Shannon Williams, set design and video: Sam James, sound artist Liberty Kerr, bus tour director and community liaison advisor Lily Shearer, bus tour performers Uncles Wes Marne, Greg Simms, Teddy Hart, Pesa Taualai, Western Sydney, Jan 19-28

RealTime issue #71 Feb-March 2006 pg. 30

© Bryoni Trezise; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2006