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A just hearing in the court of theatre

Keith Gallasch: Powerhouse Youth Theatre & Griffin, Tribunal

Mahdi Mohammadi, Jawad Yaqoubi, Karen Therese (background), Gholam Nabi (screen), Tribunal, Powerhouse Youth and Griffin Theatre Mahdi Mohammadi, Jawad Yaqoubi, Karen Therese (background), Gholam Nabi (screen), Tribunal, Powerhouse Youth and Griffin Theatre
photo Alex Wisser

Tribunal is raw, conversational theatre built, rather fragilely, on a conceit: the holding of a public tribunal overseen by a female Aboriginal elder before whom refugees living in Australia tell their stories. It’s a highly flexible hearing that allows for singing, dancing, re-enactments in which refugees deal with threatening Australian Government officials and tender accounts of life in their countries of origin and in their new home. Above all, it allows the elder, Aunty Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, to herself speak as a witness, providing a point-by-point analogy between the treatment of refugees and our Government’s maladministration of the lives of Aboriginal peoples. When one of the refugees asks if they can tell their story in their own words, Grovenor Dixon replies, “It’s theatre, you can do what you like.”

Charismatic performers and the work’s informal structure lend Tribunal necessary cohesion and warmth. Two young Afghan Hazaris, Mahdi Mohammadi and Jawad Yaqoubi, bringing wit and casual energy to the performance, offer unfamiliar tales. Mohammadi is a theatre director, formerly the leader of a women’s rights theatre troupe built around Hazari women’s dance. In Kabul they played to audiences of women—whose husbands had to be bribed into ‘believing’ the women were going on a picnic—as well as performing in schools and a women’s prison. They also toured to India. However, back home, Sharia Law’s hostility to dance resulted in threats and the death of a relative, a prelude to Mohammadi’s leaving Afghanistan.

Another speaker addressing the tribunal is an impassioned community worker, lawyer and here, a strong performer, Katie Green, who worked for three years for Red Cross, supporting refugees released from detention. Her account of the arrival of refugees in Australia tells of “chaos,” always “a mad dash,” night time, “always dark,” herself carrying a large amount of cash in an Aldi bag to be distributed $400 per person to arrivals. The upside for Green was the sheer joy of seeing refugees re-united with family. But, with only 89% granted of a Centrelink payment per week, long-term prospects did not look good for these people. Given the intractability of the situation, “I felt like a cog,” Green says.

Karen Therese, wearing headphones, reproduces verbatim the words of a Human Rights lawyer, now based in London, who feels profound guilt at not being able to help a mother “who lost the plot,” washing herself compulsively after her child was sexually abused. After some four years the woman and child were granted refugee status and admitted to Australia but denied justice and compensation. It’s not precisely clear why the lawyer had to leave Australia, presumably compelled by the helplessness he shared with the Red Cross worker and, as he says, knowing “we were biting the hand [the Government] that was feeding us [Legal Aid]” and the likelihood, as has happened, of a reduction in funds.

L-R: Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, Mahdi Mohammadi, Katie Green, Tribunal, Powerhouse Youth and Griffin Theatre L-R: Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, Mahdi Mohammadi, Katie Green, Tribunal, Powerhouse Youth and Griffin Theatre
photo Alex Wisser

Not long after his arrival in Australia and with a bridging visa, Mohammadi is bluntly advised by a Department of Immigration officer (Paul Dwyer playing all the baddies) to abide by a code of conduct including not “running a red light” if he didn’t wish to lose his visa. It’s this which triggers Grovenor Dixon to declare that she recognises similar codes her people have been compelled to live by. But first she invokes her own proud standing as elder and grandmother, recites the names of her totems, displays a magnificent possum coat (with artwork on the inside) and recounts her father Chika Dixon’s activism on behalf of his own people, having defeated his alcoholism. Grovenor Dixon then recalls the code that led her grandfather, a fine tenor, to fear the loss of welfare payments if he spoke in language. The codes by which Aboriginal people are compelled to live today has resulted in mass imprisonment, the Intervention and suicide. Mohammadi says he can take no risks, there’s “no more party”—a neighbour might complain. Grovenor Dixon sings "Miss Celie's Blues" from The Colour Purple and Mohammadi and Green dance, but the reprieve is short-lived, Mohammadi telling of young refugees killing themselves: “four while we were making this show.” 

Grovenor Dixon offers consolation, acknowledging shared resilience in the face of these nightmarish circumstances. As a buzzing and a rumbling pervade the theatre, the performers form an awkward, slow-moving tableau, shifting back and forth or repeatedly half-sinking to the floor. Its significance eluded me. But, we are saved by tea, offered by traditionally dressed Iraqi members of Fairfield’s wonderful Parents Café which supports new arrivals to Australia.

Karen Therese opens the conversation to a hesitant audience—so much had already been said, so much to accommodate, all of us doubtless feeling the burden of privilege. A psychologist and guest of the production, Sarah Coconis, joins the artists, explaining that the impact of Australian racism (and our denial of it) “is worse than the original trauma” of being a refugee. We are, she says, like a bad parent, betraying those in our care.

Two final ‘scenes’ lift Tribunal to another plane. First a young man and woman (Bilal Hafda and Iman Etri), further guests of the production, step out of the audience and rap poems with verve, he telling us to “reclaim your honour” and “atone for your apathy,” and she, traditionally attired, declaring in her last lines, “This is what a feminist looks like,” having taken exception to an attitude that argues (as close as I can recall), “you’re the norm, my clothing oppression, yours fashion.”

Mahdi Mohammadi and Jawad Yaqoubi take centre-stage and fill in the missing part of their story, their coming to Australia. There were three of them in Indonesia after they fled Afghanistan. Mohammadi arrived here by boat, Yaqoubi by plane, having been granted refugee status, and Gholam Nabi Hayati who went by boat too but has now been on Manus Island for three years. The pair sing a song for their friend. Tribunal doesn't so much end as open us anew to the plight of others and our responsibility for them. Closure seems as yet barely conceivable, but as public concern about refugee and Aboriginal suffering grows, Tribunal compels us to apply greater pressure to the Australian Government to respond to the needs of those in its care—in reality, our care.

Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, Tribunal, Powerhouse Youth and Griffin Theatre Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, Tribunal, Powerhouse Youth and Griffin Theatre
photo Alex Wisser

PYT [Powerhouse Youth Theatre], co-presenter Griffin Theatre Company, Tribunal, concept Karen Therese, creative collaborators/text/performers Paul Dwyer, Katie Green, Rhonda Grovenor Dixon, Mahdi Mohammadi, Karen Therese, Jawad Yaqoubi, design Province Studio (Laura Pike, Anne-Louise Dadak), sound, video design James Brown, lighting Emma Lockhart-Wilson; SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney, 12-20 Aug

RealTime issue #134 Aug-Sept 2016 pg.

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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