It is rare, in my experience, for a show to be exactly what the producer says it is. It’s also rare that I write in the first person when I review, but then, Blak Cabaret is all about breaking boundaries.
Earlier in the year I spoke to Jason Tamiru, the producer and head of indigenous projects at the Malthouse Theatre, and Kamahi Djordon King, a.k.a Constantina Bush – the star of Blak Cabaret. Tamiru detailed his hopes for the show; the intense emotional ride he hoped to take his audiences on, the potential power of the show, particularly its music.
Narratively, Blak Cabaret is straightforward satire. Constantina Bush plays a colonial Queen, claiming the Malthouse Forecourt as her own Terra Nullius, treating the native white folk as savages. Condensed into a five act arc, Constantina brutally mistreats the “white people” under her care, burning their cultural belongings (bonds singlets and 50 Shades of Grey) and taking their children away. Dancer Nikki Ashby, Constantina’s right hand woman, looks on, appalled.
The humour is often simplistic, the show is a political pantomime. The parallels between these quick, funny segments and the real life atrocities committed against Australian Aboriginals are obvious. It makes many white audience members palpably uncomfortable; that legendary self-deprecating Australian sensibility doesn’t seem to extend into our violent past. Perhaps laughing would be seen as an admission of guilt. But there are laughs and truths to be had here; and part of the beauty and power of comedy lies in its ability to force us to accept our own ugliness with a smile. When Constantina tells us she is intervening for our own good, I found myself nodding in agreement; we need help. In Tamiru’s words; “Education is key. We need to get information across. We need to shake the rafters.” The discomfort Blak Cabaret causes in its white audience is educational.
Constantina Bush/Kamahi Djordon King and Nikki Ashby have wonderful chemistry as performers. Constantina throws herself into the Queen persona, and Ashby is her perfect straight man. Constantina has a series of increasingly extravagant costumes that complement her figure and her politics. Ashby’s dance background is a little under utilised – there is plenty of room for more physical comedy – but when she does break out it is worth the wait. I enjoyed the use of the Janelle Monae/Erkyah Badu track ‘Q.U.E.E.N’ here, given that Monae’s music often tell stories of triumph over oppression.
It takes a while to adjust to the sudden shifts in tone that result from Constantina handing over to the musicians and back again, particularly in the sombre opening numbers. Whether or not the show manages to strike a balance with its pendulum of silly and serious depends a lot on how the audience responds. However, ultimately I found the music of Blak Cabaret lends a depth and profundity to the antics of Constantina. Deline Briscoe, Emma Donovan and Kitch Edwards have majestic voices. Their talent is both soulful and joyous, their harmonies affecting. Many of the songs are a cross-section of blues, folk and reggae. Living legend and multi instrumentalist Bart Willoughby accompanies the singers. Tucked behind keyboards and drum kits, he takes on a mystic quality, especially when performing his own protest songs. Each of the performers is magical in their own way; Edwards takes on a paternal note, Briscoe is so ethereal she may float away and take you with her. Donovan’s strength seems to hold them all onstage, compelling them to share.
It is hard to imagine Blak Cabaret being performed indoors, much less the strange wooden confines of the Speigeltent during the show’s run in Sydney. The grainy ground of the forecourt and the Melbourne skyline are constant presences in the audience’s peripheral vision. The light fades from dusk through twilight and into night as the show progresses; the air cools. On opening night, the clouds were clearly defined against the evening sky, threatening rain that never fell. It certainly feels symbolic.
There is so much emotion on stage; anger, frustration, pride, joy, and at the centre of each is honesty. The simplicity of the story is both a strength and a weakness. There are certainly times when the script could afford to be sharper, a little more biting, more concise. Mostly though, the content carries the humour, and the message, across. I left with a mixture of delight and guilt stewing in my stomach, wondering white people, my people, could have been, could still be so inhumane. “I think the show will either strengthen or weaken your sense of identity. There is an Australian identity crisis,” Jason Tamiru says: “it’s a wayward country, it’s lost. We’ve come to help out.”
Blak Cabaret runs from February 10 to 22, and is part of the 2015 Malthouse Theatre season as well as the inaugural SummerSalt Festival. Tickets range from $30 to $60, and can be bought from the Malthouse website.