My Urrwai created and performed by Ghenoa Gela. Belvoir and Performing Lines in association with Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Sydney Festival, at Belvoir Downstairs, January 20 – February 4, 2018.
Director – Rachael Maza
Dramaturg & Movement Consultant – Kate Champion
Set & Costume Designer – Michael Hankin
Lighting Designer – Niklas Pajanti
Composer – Ania Reynolds
Previewed by Frank McKone
Performing on stage is always a risk (break a leg!), but the greatest risk – to your sanity, if not in failing your audience – is to turn your own life into a public performance, and then perform it yourself.
For Ghenoa Gela to show the rest of us her personal salvation in re-connecting with her traditional culture is clearly more than a passion. It’s a necessity as much for her sake as for ours.
Fortunately, for us as well as for her, the family into which she was born in Rockhampton did their best to maintain their previous Torres Strait singing and dance culture from Moa (where Ghenoa's mother grew up in St Paul's Village), and Erub (Darnley Island where her father hails from), despite all the influences from Christianity and economic forces which set aside the past – even on the Islands themselves.
What a revelation it was for Ghenoa to be taken on a visit “home” to Moa, discover the reality of her culture as she nervously performed traditional dance, only to realise that people at home had forgotten the very dances that she had been taught at “home” in Rockhampton.
As she learns what it feels like to understand her place as the holder of knowledge for her people, we experience with her that great impact. When Indigenous people say how important is their culture, we can now understand what they mean.
We also discover that Ghenoa is a magnificent performer in a rather different context – the one which has taken her, for example, to the Edinburgh Fringe and even to So You Think You Can Dance – Top 100 on tv. She can make all of us, from whatever culture, laugh along with her as much as be fascinated by her story.
I have noted Ghenoa’s initiative before, such as her choreographing – for the whole company – of the finale for Kate Champion’s Nothing to Lose (Kate’s last show as artistic director of Force Majeure, reviewed here January 23, 2015), so I am not surprised Ghenoa has chosen to ask Kate’s advice as dramaturg for My Urrwai. And, of course, to have another strong Indigenous woman in Rachael Maza to direct the production has guaranteed the solution to that potential problem of the risk of performing not only your own work, but your own self. Add in the strongly creative input of Michael Hankin and Ania Reynolds for the visual and sound landscape for Ghenoa’s journey, inventively lit by Niklas Pajanti, for work which seems to me to be a new original and significant form, which I’ll call Theatre of the Personal Self.
If ever there was a need for cross-cultural understanding, and surely we need this more than ever before in our time of political divisiveness, Ghenoa Gela’s work is essential viewing.
Ghenoa Gela in My Urrwai