Review by Laura Heuston
In her Director’s Note, Zindzi Okenyo makes a promise to her audience: “... if you walk into this theatre with an open mind and heart, you will be moved.” And she’s right. But more than moved; if you are a part of her white audience, you will learn. Not only about the different experiences of South African women growing up in suburban Australia, but also the radical similarities. Kirsty Marillier has created a play with specific insight into one of the subcultures within Australia, that somehow also has a universality that speaks across lines of race and age. And while this review could very quickly become an essay on why the New South Wales high school curriculum should immediately start teaching it, there are some brilliant performers who have to be acknowledged first.
There is no way to order the four powerhouses who brought this show to life, so I’m going with classic alphabetical. Callan Colley is Leroy, and let me make it clear, if you spent any time at a pool in Australia when you were growing up, you know this boy. If you’re a fan of cis-men, you probably had a crush on him. And both Colley and Marrillier know this. I’m not going to tell you exactly how they cause all your teenage “glance-blush-giggle” feelings to come flooding back so acutely, you’re just going to have to experience it for yourself. Trust me, it’s great. Colley makes for the absolutely classic boy next door, complete with adorable nerves and kinda being a little stupid sometimes. Kinda. He also happens to make for the best boomer Karen encapsulation I've seen in a long time (the character’s name is actually Sharron, but we all know that’s Aussie for Karen). She’s nasal, she’s in her robe, and she’s casually racist as all hell. She’s an unfortunate fixture of suburbia here, and you can tell Colley is having a great time just ripping her to shreds. And we’re having a great time watching.
Angela Nica Sullen presents us with a character you may not have met. Stekkie seemling appears from nowhere, and she brings with her the rift that uncovers the unnerving underbelly of white suburbia. This is after all, a family that is haunted in more ways than one. Gun violence, a decades old betrayal, and the ever-watching, ever-listening, ever-judging presence of Sharron and Paul are brought to the forefront through Stekkie, who is a product of these hauntings as much as she rebels against them. She is an outcast, but also a teacher. She’s a tragic figure, but also utterly hilarious. There is no defining her, and that is the entire point. It is quite a challenge to communicate so many seemingly contradictory states in the space of 80 minutes, but you get the impression that Sullen is no stranger to great feats. She also takes on the role of Paul, Sharron’s typical husband, and her Australian male accent is completely spot on. She calls herself a “self-proclaimed comedian”, but I (and the audience) will happily join in that proclamation. She’s absolutely a comedian.
Now Vimsy (Mariama Whitton), is the little sister who hits every queer-artsy-party-sick-of-the-suburbs kid right where they live. Except Vimsy has another layer of conflict against the world she inhabits- race. The teenage girls’ rebellion is actually a righteous one, and she knows it. Whitton illustrates clearly that Women of Colour do not need to adhere to the standards of success that we set for them- rather, they have the autonomy and the power to forge their own path. Vimsy has rejected the need for validation from a white world, and in doing so set herself free- even if for now, she is physically confined to her childhood home. In fact her youth is the only thing that seems to be holding her back, and even that is a temporary state as she sits exactly on the precipice of independence. It’s a tremendous time in a young woman’s life, and Whitton embodies a young woman who revels in and towards more tremendousness. It is no accident that she is one that Stekkie first teaches the all important phrase: “No one has my bigness.”
And at the centre of this whirling world, is Zadie (Gabriela Van Wyk). She is trying her absolute best, but there are too many moving parts for her to hold onto at once. And one of those parts is of course her history as an immigrant. She was alive when her parents made the move to Australia, and she watched them spend their entire lives grinding into the suburbs. Now that they’ve made it, she can never do anything to jeopardize it. But of course, the very melanin in their skin is enough to make their neighbors assume the worst, every time. We watch as Zadie comes to realize that it is useless to fight for the approval of those who make decisions on no evidence. And this conclusion, while it bears the air of resignation on paper, is victorious on stage. There is sadness, and there is loss, but more than that there is freedom and there is joy. And the sweet little coming-of-age story that could have happened across the street suddenly feels like a complete revelation.