Big hArt is a group dedicated to creating both quality art and social change. They collaborate with various communities, getting them involved in creating new and different narratives to tell their stories to the wider world, to ensure those stories can effect real social change.
Their latest production, "Hipbone Sticking Out", is as a result of a collaboration with the community of Roebourne in WA. And at this point, it's got to be said, the theatrical production that's resulted isn't quite a successful one - it's flawed in a couple of ways that I'll go into later in the review. But in this case, the theatre production isn't the whole deal of the project, and it may not even be the most important. The engagement in the community has seen work online from a number of young artists in the community - in the lobby, there's fliers and videoscreens showing some of the many, many other projects that have come out of this collaboration - some brilliantly engaging material coming from the young people of Roebourne.
To get back to the show at hand, though - there are several great moments in this show. However it takes a while for the show to work out what it wants to be about, and the mishmash of ideas, particuarly in the first half, damages the stuff that's good. There's skilful ensemble playing and visual effects in the first half, but there's little sense of an underlying narrative or of where any of this is going - the early stages set up a flashback narrative as a young indigenous man, two hours before his death, looks back on the history of his people ... except that suddenly we're getting a history of white people's decision to come to WA instead, with the story told very much through a white perspective through the faces of the Dutch settlers. And this is almost fatal - ripping the story out of the perspective of its participants, and framing it very very awkwardly. It takes us away from where the power and soul of the piece is - with the people of Roebourne and their own personal histories - and into something that feels more like a generic history lesson that could be anybody's story. It's cleverly staged, but... there doesn't feel like anything to hang onto.
The second half comes alive in a much more direct manner. Kicking off with Derik Lynch's clever enticement of the audience, semi-entrapping them, there's then a swerve into a brief, dangerously meta argument which points out the lack of protagonist or uplift in the journey. And ...that's fine, but just pointing out your flaws doesn't make them go away.
Still, the second half has by far the strongest material of the evening - as it starts to tell the story of that young indigenous man facing death. It's a death in custody, and it's told, powerfully and well by the ensemble. We're drawn in, we're engaged, we're told a simple story that comes from these people. Noticably, there's far fewer bells and whistles in the staging for this section. It doesn't need it. It's followed by a recital of Kevin Rudd's speech of apology and ... in the midst of everything that's happened in this last week in politics, it made me remember why Rudd was admirable - that speech is still a sign that politics can, and has, done some good, sometime, somewhere. And the show goes on to establish that, even after these words, the pain and the struggles and the damage still remains ... but the story goes on, and that there is hope.
(Edited to add: I've since been advised that the speech is Paul Keating's Redfern speech, not Kevin Rudd's apology - apologies for my mistake on the matter - this does, I suppose, open the question of whether, after these speeches, anything substantial has changed, and whether this stain on our national character is something we will need to apologise for forever, until it is ingrained that this original sin has been done and is still being perpetuated. Which ... I'm a guy with a blog, I have no answers, just further questions).
I cannot figure out the rationale for the first half of this show. Is it an attempt at context, to frame things better for a presumed white audience, to find a way into the story? Because ... I don't think it's necessary, and as a framing device, it fails (the sign that a framing device has failed is if it only shows up at the beginning and never comes back at the end), and it makes peculiar assumptions about what the audience might want, rather than providing them with the communities own story - which is what we've come to see, and what, surely, the community wants to tell. I found myself massively unengaged by the first half, and completely drawn in by the second. This is a technically very skilled show in many ways. But I wish it knew where its best face was more, and had faith that drawing stories from the community can be genuinely fascinating.