Is there a more pressing time than now, in the centre of the social, political, environmental, health crisis of our time, to consider the impact of art? For one young man, some snippets of songs are enough to unravel the deeply enmeshed timelines of his life, his community, and the political stability of his home country. Despite trying to start over on another shore, music and the memories tied up in the lyrics and rhythms follow him, calling him back to a life he’d rather forget.
Working as a cleaner to get by, this man (Mararo Wangai) is under a lot of pressure from the Australian government to convince them not to deport him for overstaying his visa, from his partner who has just caught on to some shady secrets from his past, and from the violent and complicated memories of the life he left in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. On one crucial night at work, while cleaning a recording studio, the instrument that defined him in the DRC reappears in the form of a silent uncle figure (Mahamudo Selimane) who drags the man’s life story out of him with every note on his guitar.
Written by Wangai and originally performed at Perth Festival 2021, Black Brass speaks to universal themes of love, loss, identity, and belonging, particularly as experienced by migrants and displaced people. At the same time, by integrating music through Selimane’s masterful playing of songs of hope, joy, resilience, resistance, and change, the production took on the rather pertinent topic of the power of art. In the man’s personal life, the songs seemed to conjure long-buried memories of his mother and childhood as though through magic but that developed into the story of his positioning as a musician of political and social importance in his country. Music was a powerful force of emotion and connection that could impact widely from an individual to a whole nation of people.
The set, designed by Zoë Atkinson, recreated a realistic sound recording studio comprising all the appropriate switches, knobs, lights, cords, speakers, and a smattering of instruments. But the soft, padded space sat atop a revolve like a record on a turntable, able to move underneath the characters and gently transport them through time, memory, and fantasy. This introduced a tangible representation of movement and change into a script made largely of the otherwise still forms of music and monologue.
Additionally, the direction by Matt Edgerton was energetic with lots of fevered movement as Wangai’s character attempted to reconcile the evening’s odd occurrences and his troubling memories. Wangai and Selimane presented as polar opposites: one frenzied, stressed, overly talkative, and prone to outbursts, the other solemn, silent, stubborn, and unbothered. But they were united by an energy that pumped through both of them when they sung. The music was the stand-out third character in this production for the range of emotions Selimane was able to evoke with his voice and electric guitar. Despite Wangai’s impassioned performance of the character’s life story, it was the music that resonated most out from the small studio.
If art was dangerous enough to scare the politicians in the DRC, and emotive enough to incite a riot at a concert, and personal enough to seek someone out across oceans to remember who they are, it’s no wonder the powerful want to downplay its hold, to exclude it from larger conversations about violence, oppression, and inequality. But art can’t, and won’t, be separated from life and divested from meaning. It will insist you hear it.
Black Brass is running at Belvoir from January 6th – 23rd
Black Brass was originally programmed as part of Sydney Festival 2022. To view Belvoir’s statement, view here. Night Writes stands in solidarity with Palestinian people, activists, and BDS organisers as they call for a boycott of Sydney Festival 2022. Night Writes condemns the sponsorship of Sydney Festival by the Israeli Embassy as collaboration with an apartheid regime. By refusing to return the sponsorship, Sydney Festival has compromised itself and its programmed artists two years into a pandemic that has devastated the arts community. For more information and to sign the open letter, visit here.
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