Venue: Sydney Opera House (Sydney NSW), Oct 22 – 27, 2019
Playwright: Rhoda Roberts
Music: Damian Robinson
Director: Chelsea McGuffin
Cast: Waangenga Blanco, Mika Haka, Beau James, Josephine Mailisi, ‘SistaNative’ Seini Taumoepeau, Samuela Taukave aka Skillz
Images by Anna Kucera
There is probably nothing more objectifying than being part of the display at a human zoo. To be placed in that position can of course be an entirely voluntary enterprise, but in the 19th century, it is likely that circumstances at fairs and carnivals were less than dignified, with the acquisition and misrepresentation of Indigenous peoples for the pleasure of gawking colonials, forming a crucial feature of the circus industry.
Rhoda Roberts’ Natives Go Wild is critical of that tradition of humiliation, of a West obsessed with exoticism, depriving people of colour their agency. In this show however, identities are reclaimed, and tables are turned, as Indigenous performers from various Antipodean regions, take charge of their narratives, telling us precisely what we need to know, about who they are and what they do.
It is a glamorous production, featuring excellent work by designers Mark Howett (set and lights) and Tim Chappel (costumes). Original songs and music by Damian Robinson are full of inspiration, contributing a sense of transcendental elevation to the staging, with singer Seini SistaNative Taumoepeau bringing remarkable soul to these refreshing compositions. Director Chelsea McGuffin is charged with the responsibility of assembling disparate elements into a cohesive whole, for a vaudeville style of presentation that asks all the right questions.
Ringmaster Mika Haka is high camp personified, but in an acerbic and confrontational style, never letting us easily off the hook. Waangenga Blanco and Samuela Skillz Taukave are mesmerising dancers, both portraying a series of legendary Indigenous figures from circus history. Aerial artist and contortionist Josephine Mailisi conveys true beauty with a physicality full of strength and discipline. The interminably charming clown Beau James delivers some of the funniest and most moving sequences, proving himself a real star we cannot get enough of.
Some might argue that colonisation has improved lives, but there is no question that the inherent cruelty of Western values, has had negative impacts on Indigenous communities that remain significant today. The persistent inability of white people to prioritise Indigenous voices have meant that their needs are consistently ignored, and their wisdom disregarded. Even as we watch the world crumble under instruments of white supremacy, it refuses to cede power, tenaciously holding on to reins that have failed economies and the environment. Unless the next stage of our collective evolution is to better incorporate those who have demonstrated actual skills of survival, the future can only be bleak.