Originally posted on Perth Culture blog on 5 Nov 2013, linked here until the blog goes dark.
Yirra Yaakin is Australia’s largest Aboriginal theatre company, and their current production of The Cake Man, by Robert J Merritt, is proof that their reach is broad and their reputation for producing excellent work is well-deserved. The Cake Man is an historic piece of Aboriginal theatre, being the first full-length play to be staged by the National Black Theatre, and now it’s making WA theatre history with Yirra Yaakin. This is the WA premiere of the groundbreaking work, as well as Yirra Yaakin’s first production at the State Theatre Centre.
Although the work is approaching forty years old, the material is still potent and challenging in how it deals with Australia’s troubled race relations. The work is a cultural landmark because it’s an honest and forthright look at white colonialism told from a black man’s perspective, without shame, apology or fear. It’s delivered in a simple, direct way, basically through portraying the domestic life of an Aboriginal family living in poverty and subservience on a mission in rural New South Wales.
We enter this story first through satire; three white colonialists (Oscar Redding, George Shevstov and Tim Solly) scheme and plot about how to “subdue the natives,” who are represented by black baby dolls sitting in a pool of white light. The white men remain outside this circle of light, gesticulating wildly and in exaggerated voices in the near-darkness, projecting all sorts of horrible character traits and faults onto these lifeless, silent dolls. It’s a play on perspective, a metaphor for how white imperialists belittled an entire race.
We then meet an Aboriginal man, played by Luke Carroll, who delivers a long, beautiful, poignant monologue to the audience. He breaks the fourth wall, asking what it is we, the audience, want from him, then describes his life, his inner turmoil, his aspirations, and recounts a story from the Dreamtime. Carroll is an engaging storyteller and gently commands the room with an earnest sensibility and steady, strong energy.
Then we move into the story of Ruby (Irma Woods), Sweet William (Luke Carroll) and Pumpkinhead (James Slee). They are a small family trying to stay warm, clean and fed in an unforgiving milieu with hostile townsfolk threatening at their door. Each family member wants something different from life and from each other, and we get the sense that their tenuous bonds could finally give way at any moment. Their discussions and protestations are often repetitive, and there isn’t much forward movement until the family is forced to react to the timely arrival of three outside white men into their domestic sphere, in an echo of the prologue with the baby dolls.
Director Kyle J Morrison has assembled a top-calibre cast, and they treat this difficult material with honesty and courage. Morrison and designer Stephen Curtis have created a playing space by marking out a square perimeter inside which all the action takes place, and outside of which the actors sit and wait, still “on stage.” This lends a very communal feel to the piece, and it’s also nice to have the actors present at all times, respectfully listening to and watching their fellow performers.
My single disappointment with the production was the inadequate lighting for long periods of time, first in the prologue “invasion” scene, when ten or fifteen minutes of dialogue and movement happened in almost complete darkness, while inanimate objects were fully lit; and later in the family scenes, where there was scarcely more light than that which was provided by a few candles dotting the edges of the space. There was simply not enough light to make the actors much more than moving shadows, and therefore it was difficult to connect to their performances, especially from the last row up at the back of the theatre.
Nevertheless, James Slee’s beaming face, when his character Pumpkinhead discovers the thing he’s been searching and longing for throughout the entire play, genuinely lit up the entire room. There are many sweet moments to be found in this layered story, and they help us to swallow the oftentimes bitter pill of history that this play administers.
The Cake Man runs until the 9 November. Find out more here. There is also a two for one offer running until the end of the season! For more information, call Yirra Yaakin on 9202 1966