La Boite Theatre Company’s Roundhouse Theatre opened its doors last night and invited Brisbane audiences inside The Neighbourhood. A collaboration between La Boite and Multicultural Australia, this unique theatrical experience features seven local storytellers sharing their real-life experiences of building a life as ethnically diverse Australians. With backgrounds in the Middle East, Asia, Africa, the Caribbean and Indigenous Australia, the cast together have experienced war, imprisonment, gender discrimination and racism. The stories told are at turns heartbreaking, shocking, humorous and celebratory, and traverse the forms of spoken word, reenactment, hip hop, dance, song and music.
Co-creators Todd MacDonald, Aleea Monsour and Ari Palani are to be congratulated on their clever construction of the work, which weaves between segments from each storyteller in a way that shifts the tone but never jars. The seven cast members are onstage for nearly the entire performance, playing supporting characters and stagehands in one another’s recounts, helping to bring each person’s experience powerfully to life. The movement is choreographed to great effect, transforming what might have been a static night of storytelling into a dynamic, balletic visual experience. Set design by Adam Gardnir aids this choreography, with a series of arced staging blocks that pull apart and rotate as needed to create pathways, stepping stones, and a perfect circle that subtly reinforces the global message at the heart of this show. The live multi-instrumental score by Cieavash Arean and Matt Hsu adds rich texture and nuance to the performance.
The cast comprises Amer Thabet, Naavi Karan, Matt Hsu, Aurora Liddle-Christie, Anisa Nandaula, Cieavash Arean and Nima Doostkhah. All seven offer gripping, confident performances, both in their individual stories and in their ensemble work. Nandaula, Liddle-Christie, Hsu and Doostkhah reflect on growing up in Australia, the complexities of juggling two – or sometimes three – cultural identities, and the impact that even seemingly simple, ‘throwaway’ forms of racism have on a person’s sense of identity and self-worth. Thabet, Arean and Karan, who moved to Australia as adults, speak about the suffering they escaped in their countries of birth, but remind us that Australia still has significant work to do in treating migrants and refugees with equality. Although the stories are at times hard to hear, they are crucial in that they put a face and a name to experiences that sometimes seem distant – almost fictional – to those of us born to privileged circumstances. When suffering is humanised, the pull to right injustice is amplified exponentially, and we realise it is everyone’s responsibility to make our world a fairer and kinder place.
There is a thread of optimism running through The Neighbourhood, a recognition that, although Australia is still plagued by racism and discrimination, it is within our power to create a national neighbourhood in which everyone is welcome and treated with equal dignity. As Doostkhah states at the end of the show, ‘I have had my heart broken by this country, but I will always love this country.’ The Neighbourhood is testament to what theatre, in its best form, can achieve: honesty, compassion and understanding. This is not only a great night out at the theatre; this is essential viewing for all Australians who believe in a better future.
The Neighbourhood is at La Boite until 29 February 2020.