Friday, May 20, 2022

City of Gold by Meyne Wyatt


City of Gold by Meyne Wyatt.  Sydney Theatre Company and Black Swan State Theatre Company of West Australia at Wharf 1, Sydney, May 7 to June 11, 2022.

This production opened at the Heath Ledger Theatre, Perth WA, on 19th March 2022.

Reviewed by Frank McKone
May 18

Director – Shari Sebbens; Designer – Tyler Hill; Design Consultant – Zoë Atkinson
Lighting Designer – Verity Hampson; Composer & Sound Designer – Rachael Dease
Assistant Director – Daley Rangi; Video Designer – Michael Carmody
Fight Choreographer – Nastassja Kruger; Vocal Coach – Julia Moody
Lighting Associate – Jasmine Rysk

Mateo Black – Mathew Cooper
Whitman/Andrews – St John Cowcher
Carina Black – Simone Detourbet
Cliffhanger – Ian Michael
Director/Simmonds/Acting Commander – Myles Pollard
Dad – Trevor Ryan
Breythe Black – Meyne Wyatt

The image of Meyne Wyatt, with no text, on the front cover of the program for City of Gold (above) says it all.  He is angry – both as an actor and in role as Breythe Black – because of the racist attitudes and deadly violence against Indigenous people in Australia.

His play begins with black satire as Breythe is required to play a token Aboriginal for a TV ad, presumably to present a politically correct face to sell the product on Australia Day.  Dressed only in a lap-lap, Breythe is queried by the film director.  He is a bit too white; maybe you need a blackface.  Justifiably, as the usual humiliating jokes sink in, Breythe walks away from the job – in ‘tinsel-town' Sydney – and has to return to his home town, Kalgoorlie WA – ironically known as the City of Gold.  

His success as an actor in the white world has meant he has missed his father’s death and must now front up to the funeral and face up to his aggressive brother Mateo and his self-sacrificing sister Carina – who is now left to look after their unwell mother and their intellectually disabled cousin ‘Cliffhanger’; and try to manage the family’s legal matters because their father’s cancer meant that he had not properly signed all the appropriate documents.

Act Two begins with Breythe – or is it Meyne – up on the verandah roof giving a pull-no-punches lengthy tirade directly at us, the white audience rich enough to go to the theatre to watch him perform.  Meyne, of course, is a very successful Indigenous actor.  Is he acting the role of Breythe, or is he not acting but confronting us in anger for real?  In the play, Breythe’s sister had addressed a street protest with an emotional and forceful speech in Kalgoorlie against the killings there. Now Breythe/Meyne addresses us with even more anger, where Carina had tried to be rational and hoped to calm the situation down.  The deaths are not just in distant Kalgoorlie, but so often in police custody all over the nation.

Is Meyne justified in breaking the fourth wall in this way?  Of course he is.  The Australian Institute of Criminology reported in December 2021:

In the 30 years since the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the NDICP has recorded 489 Indigenous deaths in custody, including 320 in prison, 165 in police custody or custody-related operations and 4 in youth detention.

In 2020–21 there were 82 deaths in custody, 31 fewer than in 2019–20. The total included 15 Indigenous deaths and 67 non-Indigenous deaths.

In this period 66 of those deaths were in prison custody, 12 of these were of Indigenous people. Of the deaths for which manner of death was known, natural causes were the most common.

The other 16 deaths were in police custody. Three of these were of Indigenous people, and 13 were of non-Indigenous people.

Meyne’s play opened in Perth on March 19 this year.  On March 29 the National Indigenous Radio Service reported A young Noongar man has died in a Perth prison on Friday, marking the fifth Indigenous death in custody in Australia this year. “Preliminary reports indicate there are no suspicious circumstances,” the [official] statement said.  “In accordance with all deaths in custody, the WA Police Force will investigate and prepare a report for the state coroner.”

In his play, Meyne makes the opening scene almost funny – that is, we white well-off people could laugh a little, even though we might feel slightly embarrassed, as Breythe appears in his lap-lap and the camera crew arrive to film him.

But there is no laughter when the police are involved – in the play, or in reality.

This is a confronting, brave use of theatre which needs to be shown widely and, I hope, have the text become an essential study in high schools.

Publication Information:
Strawberry Hills, NSW. : Currency Press, in association with Griffin Theatre Company, 2019. ©2019.

Griffin Theatre at The Stables, in Sydney, has written: 

"Meyne Wyatt burst onto the acting scene in 2011’s Silent Disco at Griffin, going on to grace our screens (The Sapphires, Redfern Now, Mystery Road) and star on the Broadway stage (Peter Pan). Now he returns to the Stables as a playwright who is as courageous as he is merciless. It may be unclear where character ends and creator begins."