Darwin Festival: My Urrwai

DF My Urrwai Ghenoa Gela - photo by David Charles Collins“Legs . . .  back . . . head . . .” Ghenoa Gela (who likes to be called G) prepares to perform the traditional island dance that her parents began teaching her as soon as she could walk. Her Rockhampton school teacher took away her given name, but the dance became fundamental to her sense of identity as a Torres Strait Island artist.

My Urrwai is a polished one woman production which highlights the strength and versatility of Ghenoa’s physical storytelling and her easy connection with the audience as she recounts her story that is in part lightly humorous and then hard hitting as she explores the casual racism and abuse that she experienced as a Torres Strait Islander woman.

We are in the palm of her hand as she takes us on her life’s journey. Audience members are put on stage – “you’re me” – as G takes on the roles of people who have intimidated and belittled her from childhood to as recently as 2 weeks ago when she suffered a terrifying ordeal in a Sydney train station at the hands of racist police.

My Urrwai has a powerful creative team with precise and rigorous direction from  Rachael Mazza and dramaturgy by Kate Champion – every movement and every statement is distilled and refined, there is nothing superfluous. My Urrwai is driven and supported by Ania Reynolds’ soundtrack and Niklas Pajanti’s lighting design creates distinct areas out of darkness which G uses to demarcate the different ages she portrays.

It is a privilege to hear G’s personal story –a unique story told through dance, text, storytelling and comedy. But as Rachael Mazza says, G’s story “speaks to the heart of all blackfellas’ stories…”

Review: Nicky Fearn

My Urrwai is one of the most memorable solo performances that I have watched. Created and enacted by the talented Ghenoa Gela and directed by Rachael Maza, it is a multi-layered play exploring what it means to be a contemporary Torres Strait Islander woman living in mainland Australia.

“My island name is Genua… But when I got to school, one of my teachers changed my name to Ghenoa,” the artist explains in the play’s publicity brochure. Ghenoa brings her recollection of this name-changing event to life in brutal detail early in the play, setting the tone for the rest of show.

But this performance is not all sombre commentary on the negative experiences of a bisexual Islander woman coming to terms with her colonised upbringing. Ghenoa smoothly delivers witty stand-up comedy, electrifying dance routines, audience participation at key moments and rich descriptions of her Islander heritage and culture in the show.

In fact, the play was first conceived as a humorous, light-hearted piece of entertainment and only later morphed into the confronting version that it is presently, according to its director. This reinterpretation of the original script lifts the play from being a typical reflection on what it means to be a blackfella living in a white man’s society to being a truly unique and satirical story of Genoa’s own lived experience.

While the play seems to have been written primarily as a reactionary experience for a white audience, anyone who watches it could make valuable interpretations from the narrative. The nuanced and multifaceted nature of this play also reflects the unique cultural and artistic vibe of the 2019 Darwin Festival.

Review: Varunika Ruwanpura

The reviews of My Urrwai are published in association with Darwin Festival as part of their Front Row Industry Development initiative. The 2019 Darwin Festival continues to 25 August . For more information, visit: www.darwinfestival.org.au for details.

Image: Ghenoa Gela – photo by David Charles Collins