This return season of the indigenous performing arts group Kooemba Jdarra’s Goin’ to the Island is a welcome addition to the current Brisbane theatre scene. The warm applause from the opening night audience showed a keen appreciation of the performance and its significance.
The production is far from flawless but it is satisfying and rewarding: overall it is an enjoyable and insightful evening of theatre.
The play centres around the reluctant return to Minjerribah (Stradbroke Island) of TJ for his 21st birthday party. During a weekend with his extended family TJ comes to a better and more forgiving understanding of himself, his family and his people’s traditions.
Island incorporates song, dance and various visual and sound effects to conjure up different facets of Minjerribah and of the Australian mainland as the family’s stories are told. Flashbacks illustrate experiences and interrelationships between the group as they move towards a present day reconciliation.
Therese Collie’s script tells the tale clearly and concisely, with believable dialogue and characterisation, drawing effectively on local oral histories. Interracial issues are handled sensitively and in a non-confrontational way. Through subtle exploration of issues, the complexities in different people’s and groups’ perceptions are brought out. A theme of shared humanity emerges, and reconciliation seems but a handshake away.
Director Nadine McDonald brings the script to life on stage with her cast of five. The use of devices such as flashbacks and multiple roles is often a recipe for confusion and ambiguity. In this production, however, they work well.
As do the cast. They bounce off each other and make a good team. Their ensemble singing and performing is excellent. William Barton strums a fine acoustic guitar, while Rochelle Watson’s soaring gospel-trained voice gives a nice added dimension to the group work. Most of the solo singing from the cast is, however, fairly ordinary.
The acting is of variable quality, some of it not quite convincing. Kirk Page as TJ does a good job in presenting the restless michievousness of the young man, communicating his pain at his broken family and his difficulties in relating to his mother. He doesn’t represent his (late) grandfather when playing that part quite so well. By contrast Laurence Clifford as TJ’s uncle and cousin is splendid at taking on different persona. His knockabout island fisherman is very well captured, and in a most amusing scene he plays himself as a toddler on the beach, illicitly learning “the lingo” from his dad. For a few seconds also he is transformed into a very pukka superintendent chappie.
Excellent in depicting TJ’s grandmother and kid sister is Roxanne McDonald. Her instant transformations across the generations are lively and convincing. She is as believable as the wise and feisty granny trying to reconcile TJ with his mother as she is as the early-teen kid sister trying to impress her brother. And the scene where she reenacts her courtship with the inland fella, Charlie, is absolutely delightful.
The many scene changes work well, with backdrops used as slide projector screens (let’s hope they fix the wobble in one of the projectors) and converting into the island car ferry’s huge ramp or into a corrugated iron house. Sounds of splashing waves and island tourists’ voices, as well as the jetty, the nets, the oyster leases, crabs and the sandy surrounds of the island itself make us feel we are on Stradbroke or Minjerribah, as I feel I want to call it from now on.