Maryanne Sam’s comedy of cultural errors leaves you wanting more, says Monique Grbec
To mark the 1871 arrival of Christian missionaries in the Torres Strait Islands, every year on July 1 there is a holiday to celebrate “The Coming of the Light”. This ceremony is at the centre of Coconut Woman, a comedy of clashing cultures written and directed by Maryanne Sam at the Meat Market in North Melbourne.
A Melbourne-born and raised Torres Strait Islander makes the trip up north to lead the “Lighting the Way” celebrations, and along the way mistakes a lighthouse for the light of Christianity. Ultimately, she finds acceptance and the path of understanding through traditional Tagai spirituality.
A black multi-level ship, or whale-shaped skeleton, dominates the stage. In darkness at the centre of the stage, a man sits strumming his guitar and singing a soulful blend of country infused hymn. The expanse of the plain white backdrop lights up with the colours of a sunrise to reveal a long white-robed pastor (Richard Piper) preaching to his congregation.
In the back row of the congregation, a brother and sister are engrossed in their own sermons of salvation. Shilita (Laila Thaker) yearns for travel and adventure while Young Harry (Corey Saylor-Brunskill) is nourished by Tagai stories where the stars are used to navigate your way home.
Shilita follows her heart to meet the type of people who travel. Pregnant, she follows her love down south to Melbourne. In Melbourne, 31 years later, Shilita’s daughter Nancy (also Thaker) is the fast-talking, suited CEO of Reconciliation Consolidated, a struggling Indigenous consultancy.
A successful application to lead the Torres Strait Islands “Lighting the Way” celebration finds Nancy on ancestral country for the first time in her life. Mistaking her Uncle Harry (Charles Passi), who is also the festival manager, as a shuttle bus driver isn’t the smoothest introduction. But it’s not Harry that Nancy needs to worry about: it’s his wife Cessy (Deb Lowah Clark).
A Christian soldier passionate about the celebration, Cessy resents a visit from her niece and the prospect of having to wait on her. While she doesn’t know the reason for Nancy’s visit, she rants about the girl who’s riding the “coat-tails of her ancestors … with her head in the clouds”. Ironically, when Nancy does appear at their home, Cessy has prepared a feast of dugong and other delicacies, and presents Nancy with a brightly coloured floral Islander dress, complete with lace livery collar.
From the disaster of the dinner meeting, Nancy wins the “Lighting the Way” contract. In navy pencil skirt and a pink hardhat, she sets about finding the lighthouse. What she finds instead is an unresolved yearning for place.
Under Maryanne Sam’s direction, the cast is the highlight of the show. Thaker is delightful. Sitting on the pier dreaming of a far-away future, her pigtails and doe-eyed innocence are reminiscent of a Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz. As Nancy, the uber-confident, dressed-for-success businesswoman, she not only blossoms with comedic timing but evokes the bitter anxiety and festering angst of abandonment.
The dynamite smile of Corey Saylor-Brunskill as Young Harry has just enough mumma’s boy to be the boy who stays home – the boy who becomes a community leader; Charles Passi as Harry the man shows strength and patience, and his beguiling voice and presence blasts up the stage with dance and song.
The songs leave you wanting more: a stand-out is Aunties’ “stop, shut-up, breathe, and listen. I’m gonna shine a little light”. A blinding rendition that garnered a rousing applause, it showed how confidence, melody and some well-placed words by the missionaries helped to ingratiate Christianity into the Torres Strait Island culture.
Set in the glorious dreamscape of the Torres Strait Islands, where the land, sea, sky and animals take their rightful place as characters in this story, Coconut Woman could make a film to rival Roger and Hammerstein’s South Pacific. Seeing Nancy reunite with her father would offer a wonderful cross-cultural resolution to one of the plays perplexing loose ends – a bar scene where her cousin talks of his Uncle who owns the bar, the same bar where her mother met her father… Has her father been living there all along? What a song to be sung!
Coconut Woman: writer, director and producer Maryanne Sam. Performed by Laila Thaker, Charles Passi, Deb Lowah Clark, Richard Piper, Corey Saylor-Brunskill, Tobi Sam-Morris, set/costume design Robyne Latham, lighting design Jenny Hector, musical director Jayden Lillyst, original music Irene Vela and Maryanne Sam. Presented by Yirramboi Festival. Until May 15. Bookings