‘I wept for Bani’s loss, for so many of our mob who are taken too soon before their time.’ First Nations Emerging Critic Carissa Lee on My Name is Jimi Bani
The last time I saw Jimi Bani perform, he was the magnetic and ruthless Edgar in Mr Lewis and Michael Kantor’s Shadow King. He was a charming villain, managing to get the audience on side for much of the production by making us laugh, even in the most horrific of moments. Bani is a naturally comedic performer, and I longed to see him perform something lighter.
I got my wish with Bani’s My Name is Jimi, written by Jimi and his father Dimple Bani, on at Arts Centre Melbourne for the first week of the Melbourne International Arts Festival. Bani brings comedy to this joyous story of his family, who are members of the Wagadagam mob from Mabuiag island in the Torres Straits. As an additional privilege for the audience, his family is present to help him tell it – his mother Agnes and grandmother Petharie, in traditional floral pink dresses with flowers in their hair, along with his brothers Conwell and Richard, and his 15-year-old son Dmitri. Although they are not physically present, Bani’s grandfather and father are there in spirit.
The set (designed by Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri) is adorned with artefacts from the Torres Strait, which are displayed in glass cases mounted high around the stage. The back wall functions as a space for large projections such as old family films and images of the island. It also displays live footage of stories that are told through tiny puppets – manipulated by Conwell and Richard, with the help of their mother Agnes – in intricately constructed dioramas, small-scale representations of islands of the Torres Strait, placed on either side of the stage.
Bani and the other men enter wearing black suits and ties, but occasionally change into traditional dress: red calico under bamboo skirts with Mak Mak ties on their wrists and ankles. This leads into a wonderfully funny segment in which Bani dons an academic gown and cap as the early 20th century Cambridge anthropologist Alfred Cort Haddon, who lectures the audience about the changes in Torres Strait Islander dress over time. It begins with traditional clothing, and transforms into footy shorts, community shirt and back-pack, with a rugby league football in their hands at all times, (and includes some sassing to the mob about Storm’s recent loss in the NRL Grand Final).
A constant theme is the Islanders’ love of music. Bani uses music to reflect on family get-togethers that got too wild, or how young ones resurrected ‘90s hip-hop. Most importantly, traditional songs are woven throughout the show, as a means of telling stories and as celebration. The men don’t shy away from dancing up a storm – the dances ranges from comic attempts at dorky breakdancing moves to traditional Torres Strait Islander dances, which generate immense respect and acknowledgement.
Although the Bani family are kind enough to share their personal story with us, we are always conscious of their struggle to maintain culture and identity in a world that doesn’t doesn’t care about their eradication. This comes home with the story of Bani’s grandparents, who campaigned to retrieve Islander artefacts from Europe to preserve their culture and educate mob. To this day, those artefacts have not been returned.
“This is a great silence in the history of our people,” says Bani. “A deafening silence.” It’s the The Great Australian Silence[i] Professor W.E.H. Stanner describes, the exclusion of Indigenous Australians from every conversation in Australia. Bani ensures that the audience is not paying into this silence by occasionally requesting that the house lights go up and quizzing the audience about Torres Strait Islander facts that have been mentioned in the performance. It’s wonderful to see so many people call out answers. I hope they’re aware of the benefit of this education, beyond the applause they earned.
I’ll be honest: I hate crying at shows. I feel like I’m hijacking someone else’s grief. If it’s a fictional tale it’s kind of worse, because I feel that I’m crying about absolutely nothing, and what’s the point of that? So I hold back with this kind of stuff. But I wept when Bani lifted his arm, turned to the empty space beside him and said, “I’m sorry, this is the part of the show when my father would walk in.” I wept for Bani’s loss, for so many of our mob who are taken too soon before their time.
I left the theatre feeling so grateful for this family, but also so angry at the colonisers who stole from them, who stole from so many of us. But the generosity of creators like Bani and his family makes me realise that I need to stop feeding into this anger. By sharing their stories and cultures, they ensure that they continue.
My first instinct is to be protective, to question whether people are worthy of sharing this privileged material. But when Bani reflected on his grandfather’s apprehension at the impending takeover of technology, he argued that it must be used to help preserve culture, their stories, their identity. Preservation can’t just end with the knowledge we pass on to our mobs; it must also be in the demand for outside cultures to acknowledge and respect us. As Bani says, “this is why we are here together in this room.”
[i] Stanner, W. E. H. (1969). After the dreaming: black and white Australians–an anthropologist’s view. Australian Broadcasting Commission.
My Name is Jimi, written by Jimi Bani and Dimple Bani and directed by Jason Klarwein. Designed by Simona Cosentini and Simone Tesorieri, sound and projection designed by Justin Harrison, lighting design by Daniel Anderson. Performed by Dmitri Ahwang-Bani, Agnes Bani, Conwell Bani, Jimi Bani, Petharie Bani and Richard Bani. Presented by Queensland Theatre with Arts Centre Melbourne, Melbourne International Arts Festival. Until October 7. Bookings
Wheelchair accessible event
Sound amplification systems available