*Two stamps of the foot.*
If participatory theatre is not your thing, the gesture from the stage insisting that the audience stand may have momentarily caused discomfort. You have bought yourself a seat in the people’s tribunal, where Welcome to Country is not a scripted formality, but a genuine gesture incorporated into the first scene of the production.
Wrapped in a possum-skin cloak, Aboriginal Elder Aunty Rhonda Grovenor Dixon takes her seat overlooking the tribunal hearing. The staging is simple, a backdrop of brown archive boxes and document stands, wooden seats and an Afghan carpet rug. A projection screen is washed in waves as they tumble towards the shore. Throughout the production photographs give visual aid to the experiences that unfold.
As Tribunal develops it becomes strikingly obvious that this isn’t any script, but a transcript of real events that have deeply affected the actors. A production of this nature is calling for introspection from the audience – do my actions reflect my values?
Tribunal is a production conceived by PYT | Fairfield artistic director, Karen Therese with collaborative input from Joe Tan, Aunty Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, Mahdi Mohammadi, Paul Dwyer, Katie Green and Jawad Yaqoubi.
Guiding the production are the experiences of Mahdi Mohammadi, an actor and director who in 2013 was forced to leave his home in Afghanistan. His work highlighting the mistreatment of women saw his life come under threat. He travelled to Australia by boat, believing it to be a place that shared his values for freedom and justice. We learn about his story through a re-enactment of the Department of Immigration’s interrogation of him upon arriving in Australia.
The role of Mahdi’s translator is played by Jawed Yaquobi. Their exchanges reveal the relatively strict culture in Afghanistan, such as spending first dates walking on opposite sides of the road, hoping no one catches you because the consequences are dire.
Katie Green shares with audiences her experience doing case work for the Red Cross. Similarly, Karen Therese recits a phone conversation had with Human Rights Lawyer, Joe Tan. They collectively speak to the poor conditions experienced on Manus Island and Naru, the growing concerns of mental wellbeing and the contradictory nature of institutions that are established for the support of humanity, but whose processes fail to deliver.
Tribunal presents both an intertwining and collision of stories. Exchanges between Madhi and Aunty Rhonda Grovenor Dixon demonstrates the solidarity between First Nations Australians, who have struggled under Government Policies since colonisation, and newly arrived refugees. In an act of respect, Madhi places an Afghan shawl over Aunty Rhonda’s possum cloak at the commencement of his interrogation. He later helps reveal the significance of the markings on the inside of her cloak.
Music, singing and dancing capture the gestures that speak to our shared humanity. There remains untapped potential for rich cultural exchanges in multicultural places.
Katie and Madhi share a candid exchange of their experience visiting Sculpture by the Sea in 2013. There are moments to laugh at as they share anecdotes of encountering art in a public space, questioning what makes the sculptures art and in particular the way the general public engages with the sculptures. But the laughter is quickly silenced when an image of Tunni (Anthony) Kraus’ ‘Washed Up’ appears on screen. A boat shipwrecked on Turramurra beach was a haunting reminder of trauma to many of the refugees on this excursion.
Power – who has it and how do they assert their influence is an important theme in Tribunal. Towards the end supper provided by the Parents Cafe, a social enterprise supporting families of refugees in Fairfield, is brought in. Led by Karen Therese, two locals come on stage to share their experiences of resettling in Australia before the audience can ask questions. The delivery of this section could have been enhanced if there was a plant in the audience, or if audience members were made aware of this opportunity.
The two questions posed on the night I attended were concerned with what is best practice in refugee resettlement (who is doing it right) and how can other Australians help. In response to the former, Therese opens up to the audience and their is a unanimous murmur of ‘Canada’. We don’t unpack the how or the why, it is assumed knowledge. For the former, Therese encourages those in the audience to become aware of cultural diversity. Visit Fairfield (or any other area), experience the culture and talk to people.
‘To be a refugee is not an option, it is something that is forced upon you.’
– Haitham Jaju, The Parents Cafe
After a successful season at the Griffin Theatre in Kings Cross, it was appropriate that Powerhouse Youth Theatre should stage a second season for Tribunal in Fairfield. Soon to welcome 50% of Australia’s refugee intake, Fairfield is home to the largest Iraqi population outside of Iraq. Later this year it will welcome Lost in Books, a social enterprise children’s bookshop selling multilingual books.
Tribunal’s raw honesty highlights systemic apathy towards asylum seekers in Australia. It serves as a reminder of the importance to further diversify the stories presented in Australian art in order to truly be representative of our population. Similarly, it highlights the essential role of the arts in building understanding and creating safe places to have uncomfortable conversations.
There are a number of social enterprises and organisations working to support migrants and refugees in Australia. We have compiled a shortlist of those operating across western Sydney:
The Parents Cafe: now used as a model across a range of schools, this social enterprise supports refugee parents to understand the Australian education system and in turn better support their children.
Lost In Books is a multilingual bookshop, café, creative learning & language exchange hub, and safe women’s space coming to South-Western Sydney, Australia’s most culturally diverse community.
Information, Cultural Exchange is a pioneer of best practice in community engagement and cultural production, digital technology, training and artist development.
Catalysr: when 47% of migrants struggle to get employment in their profession, this specialised incubator program assists them in starting their own businesses.
Welcome Studio is an artist initiative, partnering with and welcoming refugees.
This article was first published by State of the Arts Media on May 5, 2017.