Review By Lisa Lanzi
South Australian Playwrights Theatre (SAPT) formed in 2017 with a broad remit to develop original work across the artistic spectrum including playwriting, dramaturgy, design, directing, film making, animation, choreography, performance, and music. SAPT aspires to promote and celebrate cultural diversity within our State and after a first showing in 2021, The Deep North has come to the Adelaide Festival Centre and will embark on a regional South Australian tour.
This work began life as historical drama about the creation of Liberia. However, in the way that original theatre can often evolve given fate, opportunity, and talents of available artists, we now have an original, moving, African Australian musical embracing hip hop, afro-beat, R ’n’ B, installation art, animation, theatre, song, and multimedia. This is an important show being performed at a point in history where our world is torn apart, still/again, by misunderstanding, extremism and intolerance. As an embedded part of our community, it is high time people of the African diaspora are able to witness their stories on stage while the rest of us benefit from this injection of cultural and artistic diversity.
Working with some personal recollections from cast members, playwright and director Matt Hawkins collaborated with Pontsho Nthupi, Stephen Tongun, and Gabriel Akon (DyspOra) and has assembled a passionate and talented team for this latest iteration. First on stage is composer and multi-instrumentalist James Bannah Jr who plays live keys and guitar, accompanied digitally by his own pre-recorded tracks. Bannah provides an atmospheric incidental score plus backing for the musical numbers and while occasionally there was an imbalance in the music and vocal levels, it was usually attended to quickly by the tech crew.
Nairobi-born Elsy Wameyo, Hip-Hop/soul singer and songwriter, leads the cast as Jasmine and is also the lyricist. While not an experienced actor, Wameyo is a confident performer who captivates the audience conveying Jasmine’s story with clear intention and honesty. Her sweet vocals bring life to the main songs with passion, heart and focus. Stephen Tongun with his magnetic presence and resonant speaking voice provides humour and emotional depth. He is an endearing Uncle Ebby who cares for his niece and nephew while harbouring secrets and regrets.
The outstanding professionalism of the multi-talented Jennifer Trijo makes her Miss Mendoza character a welcome feature. Trijo’s acting and vocals are simply excellent and deserving of more opportunities on the professional stage. As Jasmine’s brother Ben, Australian/South African actor and hip-hop artist Tumelo Nthupi gives a heart-warming performance topped with impeccable connection to his fellow cast members. Prosper Hakizimana is a Burundian-Australian multi-disciplinary artist who brings a quiet grace to the character of AJ, Ben’s friend, and delights the audience with his poetic rhyming.
Vivana Luzochimana (Burundian-Australian) brings to life the figure of Ananse through impassioned poetry and movement in scenes that bookend the human narrative. Lauded for *his* insight, intelligence, and wisdom, this god can shift form from human to spider to rabbit, and is important throughout Africa and the Caribbean region. The lessons of Ananse cover social, ethical, and moral issues and speak of truth, vulnerability, wisdom, and growth; much as Jasmine, and other characters, must experience these states throughout their own quests.
Matt Hawkins portrays the white, classist head master and is also responsible for direction, writing and beautiful video excerpts. He has crafted the multi-layered narrative to gradually reveal glimpses of life before the characters arrived in Australia and touches on themes of conflict and violence, child soldiers, refugees, and racism. The story centres on Jasmine’s talent for singing and her desire to attend (through audition) a selective private school. To fulfil this goal she must leave Port Augusta and move to Adelaide - consequently we are invited to consider notions of ‘home’ and how or why we attach importance to that concept. There is also the sense of searching for one’s own voice, both literally and in terms of our inner truths, our purpose.
Although some of the performers are less experienced than others, the power of the ensemble shines through, as does the depth of the story. Now and then vocal harmonies or tuning were a little flat but the variety and spirit of the songs had toe-tapping energy or were soulfully uplifting. Lighting and staging were minimal but effective with 2 walls of digital projection providing an array of scenes. Costuming from Oliver Lacoon-Williamson echoed with a considered balance both Australian and African colours and motifs and defined character with elegant simplicity.
As a first generation Australian I was privy to the abuse my Italian-born father received and was cognizant of my Irish relatives’ historic struggles also. Many of the themes in The Deep North resonated deeply for me, and I’m sure for many in the audience. Australia has been one of the global ‘landing-places’ for waves of relocating cultures over the years accompanied by a sorrowful history of intolerance. The Deep North is a ground-breaking new work and should be seen and appreciated widely.