Here is a handy language lesson as the Torres Strait takes over Belvoir Street Theatre this January.
Dancer and comedian Ghenoa Gela has called her play My Urrwai, from the Kala Lagaw Ya language of the western and central strait islands.
The word is pronounced with an “oo”, then a roll of the “r”, but there’s not an exact English equivalent: My Urrwai roughly means “my style”, as well as the way someone moves, and their spirit.
Gela’s spirit is mischievous, while still reverential of being the youngest to be taught her late maternal grandmother Napiau Abednego’s dance as practiced on Moa island. Eventually, Gela will be the only one who can teach the dance. This is a responsibility she takes seriously, but she can also make light of ceremonial dance.
The Sydney-based performer recently re-enacted the true story of a male dancer who, during a Welcome to Country dance, accidentally exposed his private parts.
“That poor fella, he just forgot his jocks under his lap-lap,” says the 35-year-old, seated in the Belvoir foyer, having emerged from rehearsals in the intimate downstairs theatre.
Gela took the lap-lap yarn to the 2017 Deadly Funny National Final & Showcase in Melbourne. “I was like, ‘Well, got no work; I’ll just go and try it out’. It was on my bucket list. Things To Do Before I Die: Deadly Funny.” Gela beams and booms loudly: ha-ha-ha-ha. She won. (Watch the video here)
Gela has gone from “got no work” to having two shows in Sydney Festival: My Urrwai at Belvoir and You Animal, You, with Force Majeure at Carriageworks.
That show is inspired by smell, and may prove confronting: the performers won’t be allowed to use any scented products. “When you’re used to putting on deodorant, you really start to smell yourself, and then you can smell everyone else around you,” she says. “It’s quite intense.”
Gela is a performer who work across dance, circus, television and stage. She won the $40,000 Keir Choreographic Award 2016 with Fragments of Mulongoka – Women of the Sea, a dance exploring her female ancestry on her mum’s side, depicting how women took on men’s roles when the men were away.
In February 2017, she joined all-female First Nations troupe Hot Brown Honey, which won a Helpmann award and is nominated for a Sydney Theatre Award. “I feel quite empowered working with them. Good luck walking next to me in the street afterwards because I’m like, ‘Excuse me, I was walking here first’.”
Now Gela is being directed by Rachael Maza in My Urrwai, with Force Majeure founder Kate Champion drawing forth dramaturgical strands and assisting with movement. Gela is about to dance and speak of her life.
Gela grew up in Rockhampton, Queensland. Alongside her Koedal mum Annie (whose totem is the crocodile) and Waumer dad Jack (frigate bird totem), her three brothers and wider family members, she was part of a troupe travelling all over Queensland, performing traditional Torres Strait dances, as well as storytelling and showing artefacts.
Gela seems innately extroverted. “I was quite shy,” she counters. “Quite annoying and quite a sook when I was younger.” How did she get over it? “Oh, I got bullied in primary school over being black, because Rocky [Rockhampton] is Rocky. But I ended up flogging up [fighting] that guy, and then we became best friends,” she laughs.
“We’re still best friends now, the guy lives up in Darwin now, and we talk and laugh about it. ‘You flogged me up good!’ ‘Yeah, well you needed a flogging.’
“That [experience] pushed me to not sit back as much as I used to, and then I myself turned into a bully when I was in high school. Just flipped the role. From one extreme of no power to full power. Then I flipped again. I grew up in a night. I rocked up to school next day and apologised to everyone that I’d bullied. I was fine after that. Totally sailing by Year 12.
“I played a lot of sport, and that pushed me more into being an extrovert. I became the captain of every team I played on.”
While Gela performs in the downstairs theatre, actor Jimi Bani, a Wadagadum Man of Mabuaig island who played land rights campaigner Eddie Mabo in the ABC mini-series Mabo, will be presenting his own autobiographical show, My Name is Jimi, upstairs. It’s a Torres Strait takeover.
“I know!” says Gela. “Totally.” Perhaps their shows could cross-pollinate in the foyer? She chuckles. “Oh man, I wouldn’t want to kill his show.”
She may be downstairs, but no one puts Gela in a corner. She’s still reeling with the “good feels” of Hot Brown Honey’s female empowerment.
“The arts still has that necessity of putting people of colour in particular boxes,” she says.
“Women are allowed to be loud, so we’re going to be loud. We’re not gonna muck around. Why do we keep being told be quiet, why do we keep being told ‘shhh’? You want loud? I’ll show you loud.”
You Animal, You plays at Carriageworks, January 5-8