Northern Territory is the New Blak

Fiona Carter: New Blak Territory at Brown’s Mart

In Namakili, the first part of a double bill titled New Blak Territory, a lone woman in an Aboriginal design dress speaks in language. English words dot the dialogue and I struggle to understand what is being said. Immediately we are challenged by the boundaries between culture and race in Australia. Our orator provides an English translation and we discover her identity, her traditional country and her family roots.

We have begun a journey through the life of Namakili, “also known as Lynette.” Lynette Hubbard plays herself as the central character, her easy rapport quickly engaging the audience with emotional honesty, offering an intimate portrayal of the life of a Desert woman torn between two worlds.

The theme of black versus white is dominant: mixed race, cultures, heritage. In a hospital waiting room, Lynette is waiting for an appointment to see the doctor. Lupus (named in Latin after the wolf, she explains) is destroying healthy cells and affecting her kidneys. She muses that perhaps this is black waging a battle against white within her own body.

With dog howls, references to Tennant Creek artist Dion Beasley’s illustrations for the children’s book Too Many Cheeky Dogs and a fight between Lynette and her sister depicted as two dogs in battle, Lupus is never far from this story.

Peppered with humour, Lynette’s story-telling never shies away from the challenges and harsher realities of life. When confronted by another patient—“You’re not one of those tan people who think you’re black are you?…You’re either Aboriginal or you’re not!”—the dialogue shifts to Shylock’s “I am a Jew…” from Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice before moving back into language, but accompanied by traditional Greek music, highlighting Lynette’s Greek heritage. The aggression, confusion, and tinge of tragedy in this scene is lightened by Lynette’s final quip to her fellow patient, “So you wanna be friends on Facebook?”

Namikili is unavoidably Northern Territorian in nature. The story touches on contemporary politics when one old patient jokes about installing pokies in hospital waiting rooms. “It’d fund the whole hospital system. (Northern Territory politician) Dave Tollner would do it.” Much of the strength of this work is in the close relationship the audience shares with the subject matter.

The performance is sporadically interrupted by a mobile phone, with Lynette having to explain to her family that she’s on stage at the moment and can’t talk. The phone rings one last time, and happy her work on stage is done she replies, “The show? I reckon it’s going alright.” Turning to the audience, she asks, “Whadda you reckon?” “Yes!” replies the audience before breaking into a final chorus of laughter and cheers.

In I Am Man, tufts of spear grass break through the floor of the theatre’s entrance, which leads into a primeval forest, the air thick with powdery white dust. Muted lighting reveals a mystical scene of slender poles growing haphazardly, some with tribal markings, others with metal pins protruding. The night-time clicks and rattles of frogs, crickets and other unknown creatures interject in this dark world.

Slowly a shadowy, grey creature emerges from the grass, wiping and blowing at the ground. He carefully takes straps from his clothing, marks his territory, then binds his hands with deliberate concentration. A twisting plume of dust appears from above and as the dancer is drawn closer he places his hands into the gentle flow of white powder. Sudden darkness falls.

A spotlight defines the naked torso of a man coated in white powder high at the rear of the stage. The dancer’s muscles ripple across his back as he rises from crouching. The sustained music with a sporadic bass drum beat and singers, Celtic in style, adds religious feeling to the birth of this creature.

Throughout there is a sense of discomfort. The choreography is lyrical yet abounds in jagged movements. The soundtrack’s deep beating pulse surges through me, while interruptions in the form of electric buzzing, clangs, a piercing whine and disembodied voices disturb and unsettle. At close quarters the two dancers are unsure of each other, tentative, frightened, drawn together by a curious uncertainty.

Breath and blowing are centrally thematic in I Am Man. Both dancers (Guy Simon, Darren Edwards) experiment with their breath, blowing into their hands, exhaling with force, discovering breath in their bodies. When the white creature collapses, his dark companion uses his breath to guide the other dancer’s movements, blowing him back to his refuge on the ledge above the stage.

The white powder provides both paint and canvas. The dancers create patterns in the heavy residue on the ground and smear the powder on their bodies. After a cleansing shower, the white creature writhes his wet body along the powder-coated wall leaving a faint image picked out by a spotlight’s beam.

In a final, distant duet with the white creature on his ledge and the dark one below at centre stage, the dancers mimic each other. The intensity of the choreography is expressed in considered, detailed movements; strength and agility are evident but the movement is also subtle and refined. A lyrical piano solo completes the mood of elegance in this duet.

As the light fades on the white dancer, the focus falls on the original shadowy figure as he delicately traces patterns, repeating them with his hands, head, body and feet. Audience members prop themselves forward in their seats, leaning in to the intimacy of the movement. The light dims, the dancer disappears, and we are left with the sound of a creature scuttering around somewhere in the dark. All too quickly this beautiful and reflective work has drawn to a close.

If Namakili and I Am Man are the beginnings of the New Blak in Northern Territory theatre, this is a trend I look forward to following. Perhaps they’ll be best enjoyed in their home setting and, like the iconic features of our local landscape, provide ample reason for audiences to travel to the Territory to experience them before we contemplate their national future.

New Blak Territory, a double bill of new Indigenous theatre, Namikili, writer, performer Lynette Hubbard, writer, director Stephen L Helper; I Am Man, creator, director Ben Graetz, performers Guy Simon, Darren Edwards, Brown's Mart Theatre, 19-30 Nov 2013.

RealTime issue #120 April-May 2014 pg. web

© Fiona Carter; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

24 February 2014