A clever script, skilful direction and compassionate performances showcase the work of a brilliant new writer in Yirra Yaakin’s Cracked, says First Nations Emerging Critic Jacob Boehme
Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company’s new work Cracked, by Barbara Hostalek, presents a powerful story about a bungling and racist bureaucracy. As members of the Aboriginal community, we know this story only too well.
The content is bleak, but the characters inhabiting this world are full of life’s joys, hopes and contradictions. Frankie (Bobbi Henry) has landed herself a stint in the clink, which has forced her kids to be placed in foster care. She blames her ex-boyfriend for getting caught for a crime that, in her mind, she didn’t commit. She blames her Aunt. She blames her heritage. She blames her dead father’s past. She blames everyone for her woes.
We know Frankie. Most of us Blakfellas in the audience have a “Frankie” in the family, or we know one, and it’s everything we can do as audience members not to charge the stage and shake some sense into her. But the injection of vulnerability that Hostalek writes into an otherwise belligerent character and that Henry brings to the role of Frankie, keeps us in our chairs: hoping she’ll make the right choices but knowing she’ll fuck up, yet again. This is a return to the stage for Henry after a 20-year hiatus and by god, does she eat this role up.
Eva Mullaley’s strong direction provides us with a clear guide as we navigate a complex script and the emotional narratives for several characters. In the Writers Notes in the program, Hostalek says “I wanted to explore why some people can’t change, why some people try to help them and others give up.” Hostalek poses these questions successfully with deep humanity, achieving levels of complexity and authenticity across multiple characters and their individual journeys.
Hostalek’s writing is brilliant. She has a muscular approach to writing dialogue, creating well rounded, identifiable characters we very quickly come to love, and who also frustrate us. We bear witness to the machinations of a system which cares little for the humans who populate it, reducing them to numbers and statistics.
Hostalek offers us an insight into a world on which we could easily make value judgements. writing off this character or that one for what they lack, or for what they’ve done or, worse, what they haven’t done. The clever script, skilful direction and the compassionate performances of the cast elicit empathy for a hopeless situation.
The performance opens with a live rendition of the Latin hymn “Non nobis domine”. We are introduced to John Rogers (a skilfully humble performance by Luke Hewitt), the non-Indigenous prison guard. He crosses a bridge upstage locking and unlocking gates on either end. The effect of clinking gates and locks set against Christian hymns is immediate and loaded. The bridge hugs a revolve centre stage where a good proportion of Frankie’s story is played out.
As John leads Frankie up and over the bridge, the noisy entrance of a moving set piece (a desk and chairs) distracts us from this very important introduction to the conventions of this world. The set piece continues to be moved throughout the performance and burdens what is otherwise a smart and efficient set design (Sara Chirichilli).
Holly Jones delivers a standout performance as Edwina, a non-Indigenous Corrections Officer who carries the world and its problems on her shoulders. With a ballpoint pen constantly wedged in her hair and a satchel overflowing with too many hard-luck cases, Holly exhibits all the symptoms of someone riddled with a martyr syndrome. But her concern is justified. In a telling scene between co-workers Edwina and Joel, Edwina confronts Joel’s exhausted and cynical standpoint by throwing down the gauntlet. “Without empathy, why are we here?”
Matthew Cooper bravely presents us with an Aboriginal character rarely written for the stage. Joel Cartwright, an Aboriginal Community Corrections Officer, has become jaded by the system and years of failed attempts to rehabilitate his people. He has resigned himself to the belief that everyone would be better off if they (his people) stayed locked up. The character of Joel is softened by an ongoing commentary on his run-around, playboy ways.
With Cooper’s good looks and charm, the character of Joel gets away with a lot. Some of Cooper’s early lines in the performance can get your back up, making you ask: “Did he, as an Aboriginal character, just say that?” Cooper presents us with a confronting moral position with commitment and courage.
Bruce Denny delivers a charming portrayal of Dwayne, Frankie’s ex-boyfriend, a dead-beat character we would usually come to loathe. The poor man can’t walk out on stage without a cast member telling to “fuck off”, but for all that he isn’t, we come to appreciate him anyway.
Similarly, Rayma Morrison’s Aunty Pat is harsh and no-nonsense, but endearing. Aunty Pat comes to Frankie’s aid and, as with Frankie’s relationship with Dwayne, theirs is a bond fraught with baggage. Frankie holds tight to a grudge against her Aunt which she has carried since the age of six. She thinks that Aunty Pat is an uptown Blak. Through a sizeable inheritance following the death of her husband, her aunt has been able to travel, which Frankie perceives as abandonment. This is Morrison’s second performance on stage. Her first appearance and exit into the wings garnered enthusiastic applause from the audience. Minus a few opening night jitters, her portrayal of Aunty Pat was triumphant.
By the play’s end, Dwayne and Aunty Pat become unlikely allies in a quest to help Frankie get back on her feet, despite Frankie’s protests and attempts to keep them at arms-length. The eventual pairing of Dwayne and Pat is surprising and through healthy doses of Blak humour, avoids cliché or sentimentality.
Much of the play relies on the characters’ abilities to see past human faults and imperfections and to demonstrate real empathy, particularly toward Frankie: someone intent on making it hard for us to love her. This is especially poignant in a revealing scene between Frankie and Edwina. After requesting many times that Frankie fill out the necessary forms for her application to parole, Edwina is pushed to her limits. At the moment when our martyr is about to give up, Edwina realises Frankie is illiterate. The revelation washes over the audience like a wave.
Yirra Yaakin means “stand tall” in the Ngoonar language of south west Western Australia. Based in Subiaco, Perth, the Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company has been sharing Aboriginal stories with the world since its founding in 1993. It has nurtured some of the most notable playwrights from the Aboriginal canon: David Milroy, Sally Morgan, Mitch Torres, Derek Nannup and Dallas Winmar, among many others.
It was extraordinary to see so many Blakfellas turn up to the theatre for the opening night. It’s a testament to its commitment to being a company embedded in its local community. At the beginning of the evening we were greeted by Aunty Carol Garlett, who reminds us of the responsibility that comes with providing a Welcome to Country. “Kaya” she says, and the audience respond “Kaya”. Aunty Carol has much to say about Ngoongar boodjar (Ngoongar country).
Throughout her welcome, spoken in both Ngoongar and English, the audience hoot and holler and call out “moorditj”. These protocols and interactions are familiar behaviour to this mob. We may be sitting in a European house of culture, but this community own this place. This is their space. This is their theatre company.
Cracked is Yirra Yaakin’s first new work under the direction of incoming artistic director Eva Mullaley, and it’s a promising sign of things to come.
Cracked, by Barbara Hostalek. Diriected by Eva Grace Mullaley, dramaturgy by Polly Low, sets and costumes by Sara Chirichilli, lighting design by Karen Cook, projection design by Mia Holton, sound design by Mei Swan Lim. Performed by Bobbi Henry, Bruce Denny, Holly Jones, Luke Hewitt, Mathew Cooper and Rayma Morrison. Yirra Yaakin at Subiaco Arts Centre. Until May 19. Bookings