Parents are a complete mystery to children. They exist as these all-powerful figures who seem to hover over your life whether bossy, friendly, embarrassing, absent, or inexplicable. And then, seemingly out of nowhere, you are one yourself and the focus on your own parents becomes crystal clear for the first time. At least that’s what happened to the four generations of Gumbaynggirr mothers and daughters at the heart of Brittanie Shipway’s new play.
Renee (Shipway) ushered in the new year along with a destabilising surprise pregnancy for which she quickly seeks the help of best friend Nick (Joel Granger) to procure a termination. But while she continues to encounter obstacles in the form of medical gatekeeping and judgmental doctors, she begins reflecting on her life and those of the women who came before her. In flashes back in time, it’s revealed that Renee’s pregnancy fits cleanly amongst the stories of her great-grandmother Miimi (Lisa Maza), grandmother Darlene (Paula Nazarski), and mother Linda (Nazaree Dickerson) all of whom raised their daughters amongst their matriarchy. At the same time, other than the complicated relationships between each mother and subsequent daughter, this group of Gumbaynggirr women have navigated difficult and often treacherous relationships with their culture and the surrounding political landscape of so-called Australia. The specifics of their lives played against a backdrop of changing times including the Indigenous Civil Rights Movement of the 60s, the Mabo Decision, and the National Apology to the Stolen Generations. Shipway’s script wove in and out of personal and public histories to explore the contextual limitations on Aboriginal women’s lives and how big and small events can effect the delicate mother/daughter relationship.
Under the direction of Ursula Yovich, Shipway’s script took on a gentle, rolling rhythm punctuated by a few restrained bursts of affect that insinuated a more rollicking turmoil underneath the surface. While there was certainly an element of discussing how social and political change materially impacted the lives of the women in this family, as illustrated in the progressive comparison of their pregnancies, Yovich placed more emphasis on the emotional impact of those conditions. In each generation, the immediate mother/daughter relationship was a difficult one with the two struggling to communicate with each other and overcome their deeply-held expectations and resentments. Yovich examined the delicate intergenerational balance through physicality, lots of rolled eyes and dramatic shifts in disposition for grandma, and through tone, sarcasm v sugary sweetness. As such, the overall mood of the production was sentimental and reflective, though powered by a fierce, nearly destructive, love.
Keeping that in mind, the performances similarly balanced a playful contemporary attitude alongside a more serious reverence. Shipway was a bright and believable Renee dealing with the many losses of those who came into adulthood in the new millennium: loss of financial and housing security which led to loss of confidence in the self as a worker and a mother on top of her loss of culture and the trauma she has inherited from colonialism. Her performance felt appropriately balanced and was a compelling contemporary centre for the story. Maza portrayed an impressive strength in Miimi which was particularly touching as her relationship with daughter Darlene softened with time. Nazarski and Dickerson were perhaps more recognisable to today’s audience in the way they policed their daughters’ schooling and socialising, always expecting more. The four women had a volatile, uncomfortable but familiar dynamic on stage which supported both Yovich’s and Shipway’s explorations of family.
The production design introduced an element of the unusual to the domestic scenes. The set design by Hugh O’Connor cycled through the decades in front of a huge mural by Alison Williams representing layers of earth in the landscape in hues of gold and warm pink. Cast onto the mural was Kelsey Lee’s lighting design depicting smoke, dappled light, and a swatch of glittering starlight enveloped within the rock. This dreamy, flowing design drew on references in the production to Gumbaynggirr spirituality including a smoke ceremony and ancestors’ place amongst the stars. Additionally, Morgan Moroney’s video design included a striking projection of yellow wallpaper scraps adorning Miimi’s home which at times twisted, swirled, distorted, and dissolved in a provocative illustration of the decaying of time and the complicated emotional movements of the women’s stories. These design elements were strong but had a subtle engagement with the action on stage which limited their impact.
It’s shockingly pertinent to be considering motherhood and parent/child relationships as the political debates surrounding Roe v Wade in the United States cast Australia’s shameful history of reproductive rights in relief, particularly as they pertain(ed) to Aboriginal women. What resonated especially in this production was what went unsaid: the words behind the anger, the pain hidden in order to face the future. This slow, softly sentimental production finds the love squeezed in between words and actions. Part of growing up is learning to see your parents as real, full, independent people and part of that is reckoning with the conditions under which they were raised themselves. Living is one long chain of events and everyone’s doing the best they can with the link they landed on.
A Letter for Molly is running at Ensemble Theatre from May 9th – June 4th
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