When you ask 50 of Australia’s playwrights to pen postcards to a nation consistently broken open, burned through and torn apart, you expect they will explore those wounds, sift through the ashes, alert us to the damage.
On Sunday’s instalment of Dear Australia, 15 writers take that damage and put a human face on it. They write to us of pain and suffering – isolation, trauma, violence, the myriad ways we have wilfully damaged the soul of this country – but they find something else, too, and together they present it like a map: a way towards the light.
Most of the pieces are filmed directly to camera with zero or minimal set dressing – a kitchen here, a colourful wall-hanging there. We are focused mostly on the face; we can simulate eye contact, like we’ve all been learning to do via videoconferencing. Occasionally style takes the floor. Future D Fidel’s piece focuses on Pacharo Mzembe’s mouth and eyes alone – you are so close you hear his teeth click together as he speaks, and all that exists are the words, like a prayer. Kamarra Bell-Wykes forges a full-bodied, multi-camera distortion, a feeling Suzie Miller, in her smartly calibrated piece earlier in the set, describes as wanting to free the moment from time so we can understand it.
Our writers zero in on isolation, and how it brings our problems – personal and political – into sharp relief. The forced flexibility of working from home sends productivity through the roof in Lucy Combe’s Flesh, where profit-making systems are more interested in performance than people and Zoom happy hours can’t soothe touch-starved workers. Social distancing is recontextualised in Matt Hawkins’ work, where Pontsho Nthupi’s slow-growing performance traces family and commerce through nations and borders.
These postcards are honest ones; no starry-eyed tourists here. Australia has a habit of throwing a wrench into communities, especially non-white, non-normative, non-wealthy ones. Barbara Hostalek and Tariro Mavondo write about carceral isolation and family. Donna Abela’s Hawk reminds us isolation is a frequent tactic of the abusive partner, and one we have yet to properly address. And perhaps we are a nation marked by loneliness. Janis Balodis and Miller dig deep here, where perhaps a dog is stolen by a lonely thief and ghosts provide company, where an isolated self feels unrecognisable. We fall so easily into isolation.
We must do the work, our playwrights say tonight, to knock down the structures that keep us apart
After all, we’ve made it a national tactic: weaponised removal. While this project was prompted by the forced insularity of Covid-19, this isn’t our first pandemic. Angeline Penrith reminds us, in the front-facing vertical iPhone view of Kylie Coolwell’s 232 Years, that white colonisers nearly wiped out the Gadigal clan with smallpox. She has been battling colonisers’ infection for so long that it’s part of her DNA. Nathan Maynard’s The Bravest Thing I Ever Did also challenges the novelty of lockdowns: together they remind us that missions, incarceration, and racist targeting have been far more effective at locking down people and movements. The sorrow of this is writ clear and steady-eyed by the great Shakira Clanton in H Lawrence Sumner’s Passenger’s Lament, a poem that aims for the throat and reaches out for your heart. Racism, it points out, remains our most enduring disease.
It’s here that, in reckoning with our damage, our playwrights point us towards the future. They see our flaws but they sense, too, fertile ground for growth. It’s a path we cannot walk alone. In Flesh, it’s the remembered casual touch of a co-worker – “just the right amount of pressure so that I know I’m actually there” – that tells us we need each other. Seeing and being seen matters. In 232 Years, the woman’s vaccine, she says, is belonging to the fissures and cracks of rebellion and resistance.
And in the final postcard of the night, “There is the light”, a video montage of recent Black Lives Matter protests eschews the intimacy of a face for the urgency of action. Richard Frankland reminds us, through Jack Thompson’s narration, that through these recent protests we have risen together to reshape a new Australia. But the fight is not yet over – this is no one-and-done moment. We must do the work, our playwrights say tonight, to knock down the structures that keep us apart: systemic racism. Profit over people. Self-interest over compassion. We must take care of each other, and not just in a crisis. White Australians must fight for our Indigenous neighbours. Our only way forward, past the novel coronavirus, past more than 200 years of open wounds, is working together to close them. “The light is us together,” says Thompson. “Rise up. Rally again. There is the light.”
At the end of the program, the screen fades to black, but god – that light? You can almost see it.