Home Country, a performance by Urban Theatre Projects. Colo Lane Car Park Blacktown
Towards the beginning of Urban Theatre Projects’ production of Home Country an indigenous performer (Uncle Cheeky: Billy Mcpherson) welcomes the audience by telling them they are all “ring ins” and explaining “Well, I’m not from around here and neither are you….Unless you’re Darug here or Gadigal over there.” This was a somewhat startling statement to make at a beginning of a performance titled Home Country. Of course for most of us the relationship to place in Australia is a recent one, at most going back a little over 200 years, but even then it has been a transitory relationship with a limited connection and relationship to a particular place.
Any feeling of surprise or discomfit at such a statement was countered by the formal welcome to country and a smoking ceremony performed by Aboriginal Elder Uncle Wes Marne and his grandson in which the audience was introduced to the concept of the cleansing smoke. The audience was given the leaves of the special tree from Uncle Wes’s country up north by Uncle Greg Simms to touch and smell and were immersed in the wafting of the smoke — a generous rite in the process of formal welcome to his home country for all those coming to it and a removal of any tensions or illness between peoples. As Uncle Wes said “anyone touched by this smoke is onto a good thing”.
The audience on the first Friday night of the unfortunately limited ten-night season no doubt included people who had spent various amounts of time in this thriving city of over 350,000 people — which is the catalyst to this site specific piece of theatre that includes three interspersed narratives about place and belonging and identity.
Blacktown is the perfect locus for what the director Rosie Dennis wanted to be an exploration ‘of contemporary perspectives of home’ given it embraced thousands of Post World War II migrants in a more generous era when Australia opened its arms to over 1,000,000 migrants fleeing the chaos and hardship of the Fascism that had torn Europe asunder. To position myself, let me share that this reviewer spent a happy childhood calling this multi-cultural hub “home”. I encountered, in the couple of blocks mum would let me explore without supervision, people from many nationalities and cultures and I am grateful for that positive experience. Consequently, it was a great pleasure to attend this wonderful performance staged in the Colo Lane carpark by Urban Theatre Projects under the artistic direction of Rosie Denis who developed the concept with three writers Andrea James (Blacktown Angels), Peter Polites (Steps into Katouna) and Gaele Sobott (Zaphora and Ali).
The chapter “Blacktown Angels” is performed by Shakira Clanton as the namesake Angel and Billy McPherson whose presence as Uncle Cheeky bookends the experience of the whole performance.
The chapter “Steps into Katouna” is immersive with earphones giving us the inside story of a young gay young man who remembers his heritage, his family and the differences between his day to day life and his heritage – the duality of his interior reality.
The chapter “Zaphora and Ali” gives by turns dramatic, humourous and celebratory notes to the necessary debates and conversations which need to occur in this country. Not just between individuals but also communities so as to connect, discover the commonality and respect the differences that comprise each of us.
The experience of Home Country is interactive and sometimes challenging, with a team of Hosts guiding the patrons onto the next experience and where one gets to carry one’s own very light stool from level to level and the performances are staged in various places in the venue which is an open air multi-level carpark. The experience is at times mediated by the mellifluous voice of MC Kween G who also performed with wonderfully talented musicians Mahmmd Lelo and James Tawadros. On a evening of a day with fierce 40+ degree heat, during the interval the large audience shared a wonderful feast curated by Helen Roseberry and supplied by small businesses from the western suburbs of Sydney representing different cultural groups. So whilst we ate amazing African, Afghani and Greek foods, thankfully the scorching heat dissipated somewhat as the southerly blew cooling drops of rain down on the heat retaining tarmac of the upper deck where we experienced the final scenes.
Clearly, the unusual venue itself is a key player, ensuring that in addition to the words and performances, art and life interacting with the land and its climate. As one moves through from the ground level to the upper level the audience experiences the view and the huge open bowl of the sky on these Cumberland Plains — lending a spectacle and power at twilight no closed theatre could lend this piece that embodies a message to modern Australia of the transcendence of the sum of the parts of a society.
– Linda Adair
Linda Adair is a Sydney based writer and critic and a founding editor of Rochford Street Review.
Home Country, presented by Urban Theatre Orijects, Blacktown Arts Centre and The Sydney Festival, runs to 22 January. Booking details at http://urbantheatre.com.au/