Robert Reid on Jodee Mundy’s Personal, a charming bilingual performance for the Deaf and the hearing
The stage is strewn with large boxes, scattered in shadows, that look as if they’re made of cardboard. There are coloured tape marks on the floor, roughly the size of the boxes. These boxes, no doubt, are there to be unpacked.
Before the lights go down, the room is filled with the flutter of hands. It’s the conversation of the Deaf community in attendance. Personal is the work of Jodee Mundy, writer/performer and the only hearing child of a profoundly Deaf family. This is her story and her experience as a CODA (the acronym for “Child of a Deaf Adult”, as we learn in the documentary Passport without a Country later in the show).
This bilingual work flits between spoken English and signed Auslan, and is often a combination of both. Munday’s experience as a lifelong Auslan interpreter lends her physicality, and particularly her hands, a remarkable capacity for illustrative nuance. Auslan itself is a mixture of coded finger lettering and physical gestures, which are are mimetic as well as rhetorical. The hands, arms and whole body make gestures that encapsulate an action or a concept or an object or emotion.
I’m alert to signs and symbols as I watch Mundy speak. Language moves through her body: as the signs inhabit her in rapid succession, she becomes a beacon. It’s possible to follow along to some extent with the Auslan-only sections because Mundy is so physically expressive.
It’s a remarkable thing to watch.
It also makes me search every moment for text. Every glance, every gesture, every offer, every device. In a space as charged by signalling as this one, everything is to be read and re-read. Each moment, each movement, allows us plenty of time to consider it, digest, reflect and move on before the next follows it. There is perhaps more to find in these moments for the Deaf community, as the show is full of footage and artefacts from Mundy’s past that she shares with them. Because the show speaks directly to their experience there is perhaps more here for them to recognise than there is for me. The instructional videos, the awkward interviews: I recognise them being recognised, but don’t recognise them myself. But I do recognise the hair, clothes and fashions of Mundy’s youth… it was a daggy decade in a daggy country.
The technology that supports Personal is a highlight of the work. At the front of the stage is a circle on a stand that looks a like a big pop filter for a microphone. It turns out to be a highly directional speaker, like a spotlight for sound: Mundy demonstrates its purpose by swinging it around the room. A rattling, mechanical noise fills the theatre, transforming into the rattle of an old film projector as family movies begin to play. The sound design (Madeleine Flynn & Tim Humphrey) and the video projection and animation (Rhian Hinkley) are stylish and clever.
Personal doesn’t really function as a drama: it lacks a crisis point, there is little at stake, and there is no narrative. Rather, it’s is an act of semi-collective remembering: a family album slide show with an amazing projector. A nostalgic glow suffuses the whole performance. Mundy is charming and the audience warms to her instantly. She’s at her most engaging during a sequence set to subtitles, when she tells us things she remembers about growing up as a CODA. Little confessions and observations. One of my favourites was her memory of shouting at her parents to see if she could surprise them into revealing that they could hear all along.
Structured as a series of vignettes, scenes, movement and projection, Personal has something of the early 2000’s animateuring about it. One thing follows another. Here is video of Mundy as a child, here Mundy tells us about interpreting for her parents at parent-teacher nights, here she interacts with projections that look like soundwaves. The story of Theseus, pictures of her family, a skype call with her brother, projections again, an account of being lost in a shopping centre and discovering what it meant that her mother couldn’t hear: all these are scattered before us, as if from unpacked boxes.
Mundy goes through each moment with the audience, showing us her treasured things. Nothing has much more weight than anything else and so nothing has its own gravity, which flattens the dramaturgy of the work. The sameness pervades. I find it difficult to follow after a while: the distinctions between thoughts presented as moments on stage becomes blurry.
Personal left me with lots of questions. Nothing profound, just details that I was left wanting filled in. Who was the woman who interviewed Little Jodee in the video? What was it for? Was the child in the jumpsuit young Jodee? What were they parodying? Mundy explains the place of the documentary Passport without a Country, its relevance to the Deaf community and its place in the performance. Without this kind of clarity around the other cultural signifiers in the work, it can only be a kind of nostalgic reverie.
Mundy is a skilled and engaging performer, and she has clearly made a work that touches those who share her experiences. For those of us who don’t, it’s a little harder to connect. Which is surely an experience the Deaf community that Mundy and her family are part of goes through all the time, in a world built for the hearing.
Personal, Jodee Mundy Collaborations. Written and performed by Jodee Mundy, directed by Merophie Carr. Design by Jen Hector, sound byMadeleine Flynn & Tim Humphrey, video by Rhian Hinkley, dramaturgy by Sandra Fiona Long. Auslan Consultant: Gavin Rose-Mundy. North Melbourne Town Hall, Arts House, until April 29.
Wheelchair Accessible. All performances are in Auslan and English
Tactile Tour – 4pm, Sun 29 April
Described performance for people who are Blind or have low vision – 5pm, Sun 29 April
For tactile tour and audio described bookings, please contact Will McRostie: email@example.com