‘Truth is what you see, truth is what you hear, truth is what you speak’
Yuan Senior Law man Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison
Tribunal, a critical participatory performance project instigated by 2015 Griffin Studio Artist Karen Therese, opened on Saturday to a full house at the SBW Stables Theatre, Sydney. Tribunal was produced by Powerhouse Youth Theatre and presented by Griffin Theatre, and brings together artists, community leaders, and asylum seekers to recount and address the mistreatment of indigenous Australians and asylum seekers by the Australian government.
Particularly timely due to the Nauru files recently released by The Guardian (shockingly dismissed by general media, even outlets such as the ABC and SBS, who have seemingly turned a blind eye to the atrocities outlined), Tribunal effectively knitted together personal narratives of displacement, imprisonment, and racism, through the staging of a tribunal attended by the audience and overseen by Aunty Rhonda Grovenor Dixon.
Aunty Rhonda shared her own stories of colonial invasion while acting as witness and judge of the atrocities narrated by caseworker Katie Green, human rights lawyer Joe Tan (as told by Karen Therese), and artists/refugees Mahdi Mohammadi and Jawad Yoqoubi. Aunty Rhonda, draped in her possum skin cloak and sitting in a carved chair presiding over the proceedings, acted as a grave reminder of the atrocities that colonial Australia has committed, and continues to repeat. Listening to the stories told and sometimes raising from her chair to sing, acknowledge or embrace the speaker, Aunty Rhonda witnessed with empathy and understanding. Her anger about suicide, imprisonment, and displacement of her people was shared and echoed back to her by Mahdi Mohammadi.
The appropriation of the white colonial process of a tribunal effectively inverted the roles of persecutor and the persecuted – of judge and jury. Setting the performance within the space of the oppressor, with the formalities and language that have displaced and dismissed Aboriginal Australia and asylum seekers as a platform to discuss these actions is inspired.
Supporting the formalities of theatre and law framing the performer’s stories, intersecting rites and cultures of hospitality also created an atmosphere of inclusivity and due process. Yuan Senior Law man Uncle Max Dulumunmun Harrison, quoted above and in the performance flyer, conducted a smoking ceremony at the entrance of the foyer which guests were invited to pass through as they entered the building on opening night. The Fairfield High School Parents Cafe served Iraqi refreshments at the bar, and brought tea to performers and audience members during the discussion that followed the performance.
The lack of a fourth wall, at any point, served to implicate the audience from the start as present and engaged. In the most affective way, the issues addressed were not presented as abstract, the performers were not representing the experiences of others. Violences inflicted upon them by Australian governments, past and present, were shared with an intimacy that is unique to live performance and hard to forget. On hearing truths told in such a setting, it is impossible to ignore wrongs which must be made right.
Tribunal is at the SBW Stables Theatre until August 20.