Review by Megan Mitchell
Ngarngk; Giver of Life is currently showing at La Mama Theatre until the 14th of May. It is part of the 2021 Yirramboi Festival, celebrating the arts and culture of Australia’s First Nations People, and I had the incredibly good fortune of seeing this play on Mother’s Day; in the Nyoongar language, from the land on which the play is set, ‘Ngarngk’ means ‘Mother, the sun, Giver of Life’.
Ngarngk is playwright and director NazAree Dickerson’s first play, and she describes it as ‘an ode to all the mothers who have continued to nurture in spite of their circumstances.’ It is a formidable, personal and heartwarming beginning to what I hope will be a catalogue of works.
We follow the lives of three generations of women in the Tannin family; the Nan, Cherie (played by Denice Kickett), the Mother, Sally (played by Carissa Lee) and the Daughter, Missy (played by Kristel Kickett). The overarching themes are apparent from the first scene, when we find out Missy is trying to get her son RJ back, who has been removed from her care by the authorities. Sally and Cherie share their own stories of motherhood, and what follows are three different but very personal experiences of struggle, triumph and resilience.
Dickerson navigates these stories with a prevailing undercurrent of strength and hope, allowing us cry, laugh and rage all within the same piece. It allows vulnerability without ever delving into trauma porn, and takes on the universal theme of motherhood in a way specific to First Nations People, and more specifically, Nyoongar women. The stories manage to mix humour and reflection with anger and grief, fleshing out into a well-rounded piece.
The play was full of unexpected delights; the three actresses took on different roles throughout, interspersed their dialogue with Nyoongar words and jumped around in time but this served to create depth, not confusion. The inclusion of a language translation guide in the program was also a unique, clever addition. The set, costuming and sound design were well done, and although I was initially confused by how the generations split (the two younger actresses were close enough in age that I thought they were sisters) it became clear very quickly.
The actresses’ rapport was such a joy to watch. Kickett was a powerful maternal figure whose character Cherie had been taken from her birth mother as a child. Kickett was quick-witted and funny, and her first monologue was beautifully presented and choreographed. Lee played a recovered addict, Sally - a complex and unmoored character who is a little more closed off than the others. Her specific relationships with both her mother and daughter were compelling to watch and felt very real. Kristel was hilarious as mother-to-be Missy, but also very moving in more dramatic moments. We also got a glimpse of her singing voice right near the end, which I would have liked more of; it was stunning.
This play was such a treat to watch. The care and love poured into it was apparent in all aspects; from the cast, crew and creatives. The narrative arc was very satisfying, the pacing was excellent and the ability to shift between humour, outrage and high emotion was seamless. This is storytelling at its most authentic, and is a beautiful celebration of what it means to a mother, to be an Indigenous person living in Australia and the importance of culture and family.