What: Blak Cabaret
When: February 10-22
Where: Malthouse Theatre Forecourt – part of SummerSalt Festival
Concept by: Jason Tamiru
Text by: Nakkiah Lui
Performed by: Nikki Ashby, Deline Briscoe, Emma Donovan, Kutcha Edwards, Kamahi Djordan King, and Bart Willoughby
Design by: Chloe Greaves
Sound by: Jed Palmer
Living in Australia in modern times is not a peaceful or a comfortable place for anyone: Indigenous Australians are fighting to regain their sovereignty and immigrant Australians are struggling with how to support this without losing everything. One of the biggest questions is whether immigrant Australians have any real understanding of the historical pain and suffering of the Indigenous people; and why and how it is still as raw and real as it was at first contact and during everything that has happened subsequent to the infamous ruling of terra nullias by the English colonists.
Blak Cabaret faces these questions head on and without flinching. Using a mix of political sketch cabaret and soulful protest music reminiscent of the 60’s this ensemble of performers demand that we listen to, and feel, their pain.
There is a lot of very heavy material here – colonisation, intervention, stolen generations. It is handled with care though and is brought to us through a blend outrageous humour, extravagant indulgences, and some of the most beautiful and soul rending music which is performed with elegance and virtuosity.
The format is a series of sketch comedy scenes interspersed with indigenous music performed by the phenomenal talents of Willoughby, Edwards, Donovan, and Briscoe. In the first musical interlude Edwards asks us to close our eyes as he sings to us in his native language. Obviously I did not understand the words, but the great power of all music is that it speaks to human emotion directly. I did not need to understand the words to be transported.
The sketches track the development of a black peoples led by the absolutely fabulous Queen Constantina Bush (King) who colonise, enslave and then control the indigenous white people. The Queen does notice the indigenous ‘megafauna’ but goes ahead and declares terra nullias and claims ownership. Ashby brings her confiscated cultural artefacts from the indigenous white peoples – bonds shirts, thongs, and the great cultural text Fifty Shades of Grey.
The whites (us) are asked to provide proof of ‘whiteness’ and when we can’t we have to sit a test. You will shudder inside as you keel over laughing when you find out what meat pies are made of. We were then asked to demonstrate our cultural dance – the Birdie dance. It was quite funny seeing how many people in the audience did or didn’t remember it.
We were the perfect audience for this show. It was made for immigrant Australians to see and hear and that was almost the entire constituency of the audience on the night I went. This also made the show confronting and uncomfortable even as I laughed. I have never felt so directly as if I were the target of a socio-political performance before.
In the background my mind was asking questions about my place here in this country, the country I call my own – the only country I have ever known as home. In between the sketches at one point, Edwards talks about how the scars of the first peoples will never be healed until the land is given back. This made me sad because I do not have a vision broad enough to see how that will happen, and I don’t think my limitation in this area is unique. We call Australia the lucky country, but sometimes I think we are just the very, very sad and confused country.
This exemplifies the strength of the structure of Blak Cabaret. In the music interludes the discussion is direct, the music inescapable, and the demands unremitting. The sketches come along and lighten the mood, and yet they never let the tension drop. Not for a single moment do the ropes go slack. We, the audience, are never let off the hook. It is rare to see such masterful management of subject matter and interlacing material.
Greaves is the costume designer for Blak Cabaret and she was obviously given great licence and resources in the making of the Queen’s wardrobe. Every outfit (there were around five or six) were lavish, outlandish and absolutely divine! Ashby’s costume on the other hand was a confusing conundrum. She was basically in a black sweat suit with a full tail tuxedo jacket. It looked mean and thrown together with no thought in comparison to Queen Constantina. Even the band were in a beautiful array of black, red and yellow to reflect the colours of the indigenous flag.
Blak Cabaret is intensely serious subject matter but it is also a whole lot of fun and an evening of profound music. Every member of this ensemble are absolute masters of their art forms. It is also nice to see the Malthouse forecourt being used in this manner. I really hope they do more of this sort of thing in the future.