It is a challenge to reduce in words the impact of the dance piece Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk] has. Sometimes terribly painful to watch, at other times supremely beautiful, Jurrungu Ngan-ga is an hour and a half of visceral embodied experience of what it is like to be treated inhumanely by the prison state. As the dancers explore the stories of humiliation and torture of Indigenous people and refugees in prisons and detention centers at the hands of the Australian government, we are invited to simultaneously consider the power of their joy and their ‘hope’.
Mariame Kaba, who has written extensively on the abolition of the prison state, asserts that “hope is a discipline”. You have to be able to hope, to imagine a human, compassionate state in order to be able to transcend an iniquitous state. By telling stories through dance and dialogue, Marrugeku Dance Company can lead audiences to believe in the power of love and the human spirit to transcend atrocities.
The play opens with Emmanuel James Brown, dancing on the stage. His presence is galvanizing, as if the wind blew through him as he waved his arms and pivoted on his heels. The dim light and natural soundtrack (complete with howling dingoes, flickering crickets and a breeze swirling through the leaves) enhanced the beauty. Congratulations to Sam Serruys, Rhyan Clapham (aka DOBBY) and Paul Charlier for the music and Damien Cooper for the lighting. Brown is surrounded by high, steel-colored walls, a piece of scenery that remains for the duration of the performance, a claustrophobic reminder of confinement.
He is joined by other dancers, who move with automatic abandon, staring at the audience with wide eyes and exhaling to propel themselves onto the stage. Disturbed industrial sounds, nature sounds and a live CCTV projection appear on the steel wall. The dancers progress in lion’s steps, punctuated by jerky movements, reproducing a journey in a police van. Barking dogs and sirens blare on the floor as dancer Chandler Connell falls to the ground and sputters “I can’t breathe…” Lying prostrate with his hands invisibly tied behind his back, it’s a chilling precedent for sadness and the tragedy that will follow.
The bravery of the physical theater and the intensity of the emotions expressed by all the dancers do not waver throughout the show. This lived experience of incarceration and inhumanity has clearly been thoroughly researched and described. Indeed, a panel of playwrights worked with director Rachael Swain and choreographer Dalisa Pigram to ensure these voices were heard in the most authentic way possible. These playwrights include: Hildegard de Vuyst, Behrouz Boochani (the Kurdish refugee who wrote the No friend but the mountains), Patrick Dodson and Omid Tofighian.
Read: Festival review: RISING
There were so many harrowing and heartbreaking moments in the performance – seeing is really believing, but the sudden surge of the cast in the chorus of “This is Australia” (a version of the song Childish Gambino) led by Luke Currie- Richardson was a moment of dramatic irony and choreographic perfection. We had no doubts about the play’s overwhelming message, echoed later in Emmanuel James Brown’s soliloquy – the prison state is racist, genocidal and the cracks in the fabric of our communities are deepening. Innocent lives are being brutally cut short due to neglect and state-sanctioned murder.
Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk] was an impactful and at the same time life-affirming work of art as activism. As dancer Bhenji Ra implores in the final scene, we must “say their names” and listen to these stories as the first step in dismantling the so-called brutally racist and exclusive justice system here in these unceded lands.
Jurrungu Ngan-ga [Straight Talk] by Marrugeku
Arts House, North Melbourne as part of RISING
Concept: Dalisa Pigram and Rachael Swain with Patrick Dodson
Choreography: Dalisa Pigram with the performers
Directed by: Rachael Swain
Dramaturgy of the show: Hildegarde de Vuyst
Cultural dramaturgy: Behrouz Boochani, Patrick Dodson, Omid Tofighian
Music: Sam Serruys, Paul Charlier and Rhyan Clapham (aka DOBBY)
Sound design: Sam Serruys and Paul Charlier
Stage design: Abdul-Rahman Abdullah
Costume Design: Andrew Treloar
Lighting design: Damien Cooper
Additional Choreography: Krump Army: Stacy Peke aka Red Ladybrui5er
Production Manager and Lighting Operator: Aiden Brennan Sound Technician: Raine Paul Company Manager: Denise Wilson Producer: Natalie Smith
Cast/Co-Design Performers: Czack (Ses) Bero, Emmanuel James Brown, Chandler Connell, Luke Currie-Richardson, Issa el Assaad, Macon Riley, Bhenji Ra, Feras Shaheen and Miranda Wheen
Jurrungu Ngan-ga will be played until June 11, 2022