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Black face, white mask: Reality theatre in Melbourne’s west

Gayertree Subramaniam

Wed Jul 25 2012

Black Face White Face 10/7/10

ARE all Africans the same? FInd out how a group of young Afro-Australians are challenging mindsets through reality theatre in Melbourne’s west. 

Mention ‘Flemington’ and the first thing that comes to mind is the renowned race course that hosts the annual Melbourne Cup during the Spring Racing Carnival. But unknown to many, this colourful suburb, nestled in the west of the city, is also the home to entertainment of another kind – theatre.

Having recently performed their sell-out show Black Face, White Mask to much praise and acclaim, the two-year old group has become a community icon in their own right.

The play explores the identity of young Afro-Australians and their struggle to affirm this identity within two cultures, desperately trying to find their place in a society where stereotypes and prejudices are all too common.

Through migrant stories of cross-generational tensions and inter-racial romance, the underlying theme of racism is one that strikes hard at the Australian consciousness.

Abraham Herasan, 19, is one of nine founding members of the group.

“For someone who hasn’t experienced multiculturalism at full force to see the racism and its effects on stage, it’s a very powerful thing,” he says.

“It’s confronting, but this is reality. We need to show events and concerns that are real to us to the wider community, to show stories from the other side that no one sees in the mainstream.”

There are also stereotypes that the group wants to break.

The settlement of Africans in Australia is only a recent phenomenon after political unrest, natural devastation and conflict in various parts of Africa, particularly around the Horn of Africa, prompted migration to Australian shores through humanitarian programs since 1997. Now more than half of Australia’s Ethiopian population resides in Melbourne, and make up the majority of the community in Flemington and surrounding suburbs.

“There are many nationalities of African background, but no one sees that. They see an African person and they’re all the same,” Abraham says.

First performed in 2010, the story was developed after complex discussions and analysis of shared experiences and stories with the nine members of the drama.

The group trawled through a report written by the African community here in Australia, incorporating excerpts from it regarding racial profiling by the police in order to successfully showcase the authenticity of these problems.

Authenticity is important for LeGrand Andersen, 21, another member of the group.

“A lot of the storyline is anecdotal. It’s happened to someone in the cast or someone else. It is an important point to make that it’s very realistic and has depth,” he says.

For the group, acting as a voice for the community they represent is paramount, and they believe they are best suited for the role of being the mouthpiece for the wider community through the medium of theatre.

“Wouldn’t you rather hear the struggles of what we face, from someone who has seen and experienced it, as opposed to someone who has just studied it and can’t exactly capture the emotion of being in our situation?” says Abraham.

Understandably, such controversial issues are bound to hit a raw nerve with some audiences. The group utilises hard-hitting, self satirising humour to lessen the intensity of scenes, all the while retaining a rawness in its essence that is far from funny.

“People love to laugh. Our theatre is not to make people feel sorry for us. Comedy, is key to breaking the tension and unease, instead allowing the audience to be comfortable and be able relate to our message,” says Andersen.

“All we do is try to raise awareness of issues about our community, be it good or bad. We’re not scared, we’ll still talk about things that are controversial as long as it’s in a constructive way.”

The show also won the thumbs up of Melbourne poet and current Australian Poetry Slam Champion, Luka Lesson, who says he had never been to  a theatre show where it felt like “you were just hanging out with them”, where issues were being presented on a profound yet accessible level.

Rather than being regarded as role models, the group hopes to become known for how many young people they have inspired and encouraged to create change and stand up for themselves.

The group says young people in the community often get caught up in the hands of the law because they’re frustrated, leading them to do things completely out of character.

They hope theatre will provide a platform for young people in their community to express themselves.

“The long term aim for us is eventually to become an independent group, and be able to hold something solid within the Flemington community. Something the kids can take ownership of because in the end, this whole thing is for them,” says Abraham.

After their humble beginnings at the Flemington Community Centre, the group has since gone on to perform at venues like the Malthouse Theatre. They say they are “blessed” to have been brought under the wing of their mentors Dave Kelman and Dave Nguyen – to gain the knowledge that “people pay lots of money for”.

Writer-director Dave Kelman is the Artistic Director of the Education Program of Western Edge Youth Arts. A play-wright, director, actor and researcher whose professional life has been spent working with disadvantaged, culturally diverse communities in UK and Australia, he has known most of the cast since their schooling days.

Co-writer-director David Nguyen is a leading community theatre maker and award-winning playwright who creates edgy work with marginalised communities.

“Western edge is the root and we are the branches, we are still blossoming and growing. Eventually one day, we’re going to become our own tree,” says Abraham.

The Flemington Theatre Group is testimony that cultivating multiculturalism and tolerance in Melbourne should begin at home, at a grassroots level.