Black Ties. Credit Garth Oriander
Garth Oriander

Tangled and tackled: Black Ties at Sydney Festival 2020

The challenges of fusing and representing more than one culture while planning and executing a memorable wedding are well-known to us in real life and in fiction. Movies like My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), The Birdcage (1996) and Top End Wedding (2019) have explored the themes of love, family, loyalties, tradition and change successfully using the romantic comedy lens. Similarly, Black Ties brings up all of these themes in a performance that lets us think about the ways gathering two families from two distinct cultures can be, indeed, too much.

Written by John Harvey and Tainui Tukiwaho, Black Ties is the result of a collaboration between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Māori Te Rēhia Theatre. It premiered at the Sydney Festival 2020 in early January and will continue to be staged in other festivals, including Melbourne’s AsiaTOPA. It follows Hera (Tuakoi Ohia), a Māori woman, and Kane (Mark Coles Smith), an Aboriginal man as they introduce their family members to each other and decide to get married.

The play is both light-hearted and political, using two different approaches to let us consider the positionality of our gaze. The first act felt like a more traditional, passive experience as we observe the plot unravel. The young couple quickly realise that key family members, for instance, their mothers, do not approve of nor support their union. The second act shifts the role of the audience, as we are invited to become guests, friends and family members, and the experience becomes immersive and participatory. This is important because plays like this subvert the point of view of “the other” and truly engage our collective hearts and minds. Ultimately, the message is one of love and unity in the context of a meaningful celebration.

All the members of the cast were fabulous and did a good job in singing, acting and improvising. It was very clear that through the process of creating, rehearsing and performing, the two companies matched each other’s craft in a very seamless way. However, as is often the case in plays these days, the overuse of screens and projections took away from several important dialogue threads that were diluted as the plot developed.

Despite the fun and novelty of the experience, the most powerful moments of the play were interactions between characters that made us think about issues such as the role of women in preserving culture, the way gendered and racialised stereotypes continue to damage Aboriginal communities and histories, the recognition of collective trauma and the undeniable resilience of indigenous peoples around the world. For instance, what are the things “there” that we are still fighting for “here”?

As someone who cringes at tokenistic welcome to country practices in arts venues around Sydney, I think it is just as important to consider the statement made by both theatre companies in the programme. “…We acknowledge, with full respect, the power and excellence of First Nations people and communities fighting to protect and look after Country, Community, Language and Lore, in the face of ongoing cultural interruptions and cultural genocide. Always was, always will be, sacred indigenous land.” I applaud this joint effort and hope to be able to see the results of similar types of collaborations in years to come.

Black Ties by Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Te Rēhia Theatre was presented as part of Sydney Festival 2020 and ran from 10-18 January 2020 at Sydney Town Hall. More info here.

About the author(s)

Maria Herminia Graterol Garrido is a theatre momster currently living in Sydney. During her years living in Malaysia and Thailand, she learned to appreciate the specific artistic expressions of Southeast Asia and enjoy the growing number of original work being produced in the region.

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