On one side of the glass, strapped to a man’s back, a vacuum releases its atonal drone of white noise, an instrument performing the low-paid labour of erasure.
On the other, a soulful spirit scowls. Positions his fingers on the frets. Rebels against the small and ugly sound.
Haunting and hypnotic, passionately alive in music and movement, Mararo Wangai’s magical realist tale speaks to the complex experiences of belonging and identity for the African diaspora, as played out in the small hours of one night in a recording studio.
Following a lauded Perth Festival 2021 debut, it has travelled across the Nullarbor to open in Sydney as Belvoir’s first production of its 2022 season, co-presented with Performing Lines WA and directed by the award-winning Matt Edgerton.
Bathed in Lucy Birkinshaw’s dim golden light, we first find a cleaner (played by Wangai) wearily facing the debris of the musicians’ debauchery, which is littered about the cramped space in condoms and pizza boxes, beer cans and muck.
At the same time, a bigger mess threatens: the security of his new life, and the smiling, simple, ‘good black migrant’ identity he has worked to maintain is unravelling. Sophia, his partner of eight months, has realised he’s been keeping secrets from her. Who is Mariam, she demands over the phone. Why has he been sending her money?
How can he begin to tell her?
The man, we come to learn, has suppressed large swathes of his previous life growing up in Africa. The dissonance between his two lives seems irreconcilable, the lie not only easier but safer, even as it pains and reduces him.
Yet – for better or for worse – the past has followed in his footsteps, journeying obstinately across the seas. This fateful night, it materialises in the window behind him wearing a pistachio suit and dress shoes, holding a guitar, speaking in songs.
Mute in every other way but music, the stranger is by turns playful and petulant, communicating in meaningful glares, gestures and riffs. While the man does his best to focus on the job at hand, the stranger and his guitar won’t let him be. More and more, the music of Lingala and Franco, revolution and home, plucks at his deepest memories, loosening the ghosts that live inside.
Carried back by the immutable honesty of clear notes, the past rises up to meet him in huge, shattering waves of love, sorrow, blood, hope, shame and beauty – huge emotions which Wangai channels with a fluid, graceful energy. Engineered beyond metaphor through Zöe Atkinson’s circular stage (which is spliced by a windowed wall in two halves) the world starts spinning. Things hidden and denied are becoming dislodged.
The very talented composer-musician Mahamudo Selimane inhabits the role of the mysterious player.
With a rich, growling cadence, he sings in Shangana, Swahili, Kikuyu, Xhosa and English; songs which you don’t need to understand to feel. When the two performers join voices, their harmony stops the heart then floods it. (If, like me, you have not experienced live music too often these last few years, this ache is especially keen.)
Some of the play’s most striking moments are when the staging becomes surreal and even dream-like (in the play notes, the man is called ‘Sleeper’). In one interaction, the stranger paces before the man, who is drenched under a white spotlight in a chair, interrogating him with his guitar. In another scene, an impossible object appears in a trash can, breathing poisonous memories.
Beginning with silence, Wangai’s monologue builds to a towering wave of vivid revelation which overwhelms the play’s humble beginnings. The stereotype of a low-skilled migrant worker, marginal and one-dimensional in most Anglocentric myths, is blown open. With each revolution of the stage, his story expands, to encompass a man also known as Pembe and a wayward son, who has known slums and revolutions, middle-class education and disgrace, who has been on both sides of betrayal, and who knows intimately the power of music – in his mother’s voice, as a propaganda tool, as a unifying and radical force.
Is the intruder really a stranger? Only in the final minutes of the play do we understand who – or what – has come for him. (Or never really left.)
At only 70 minutes, this triumphant production is dizzying and dense. Perhaps a tad too dizzying – the whirling motion of the stage and Wangai’s contra-directional movements came close to exhausting near the end.
As a work, Black Brass began with Wangai speaking with as many African diaspora as he could. Born in Kenya, moving to Australia 14 years ago, he reached out to Perth’s Zimbabwean, Sudanese, South African, Central Congo, Mauritius, Nigerian, Congolese and Kenyan communities, and invited them to tell him their stories of resilience.
As Wangai told Perth Festival: “We are told that certain people must always play the lead, others their smaller counter parts and the rest are to populate the background almost as inanimate objects, blurred and of little significance.”
“All of this is false – humanity is rife with these notions of superiority and inferiority of what is worthy and what is not. We are all riddled with these within ourselves.”
The production is also shaped by community engagement coordinators Niwa Mburja and Wanyika Mshila, and has as its dramaturg the internationally published Sudanese poet Afeif Ismail, with the script shaped by editors Sisonke Msimang and Zainab Syed.
This multitude of black voices and perspectives has constructed a profound and layered work which disrupts the historically (and still predominantly) white space of Australian theatre. It is also deliberately non-specific in sections – we never know the man’s name, or which African country he travelled from, or whether indeed his new home is Australia or another settler colonial nation. Instead, it tells a more encompassing story of the turbulent experience of leaving one home and finding your place in another; a home you can love even as it regards you as ‘Other’.
The production’s themes of an abundant, irrepressible culture and its spirit of complicating constructed boundaries seeps beyond the stage, too.
When you step down into the sunken Belvoir foyer, there’s an immersive, multi-sensory welcome waiting. At the bottom of the entrance stairs, a woman offers traditional Ethiopian coffee in delicate cups, and every table is draped with colourful patterned textiles. Frankincense and roasting coffee beans makes heavy the air – becoming a coded scent to remember this night, a smell that followed me home like its own little ghost.
It is a gut-churningly stressful time for any creatives making live performance in Sydney right now. This omicron wave is seeing fewer people engage in their city’s culture, whether from caution or necessity, and cast members themselves are being stuck down.
However many tickets end up being sold, Black Brass deserves a full house until the end of its limited run. While the show remains under the umbrella of Sydney Festival, the producers are no longer accepting direct financial support from the festival in solidarity with Palestinians and those boycotting it due to the Israeli funding decision, too.
Experience the show if you can. Your summer will be richer for it.