Playmate: Tribunal (Powerhouse Youth Theatre & Griffin Theatre)
August 17th 2016
Mahdi Mohammadi and the cast of Powerhouse Youth Theatre’s Tribunal. Photo: Alex Wisser
Tribunal is a ceremony we are all invited to. It’s the type of theatre that wants an active audience, one to bear witness to the stories and experiences of Indigenous Australians and asylum seekers.
Entering the Tribunal space, we are met by Aunty Rhonda. She is a silent presence that quietens us as we enter. She’s wrapped in her totem, a possum skin cloak worn during ceremonies for births, deaths, marriages, healing, and welcome to country.
Mahdi Mohammadi acts as both director and performer. Mahdi came to Australia by boat in 2013, hoping for freedom from his war-torn home in Afghanistan. His own story of seeking asylum is the catalyst for a group of artists, activists, lawyers and performers to join him on stage and present “hearsay evidence” to Aunty Rhonda, who acts as adjudicator to the proceedings that unfold.
It’s a kind of people’s courtroom; the walls are a canvas for projected images that support the stories being told. Artist, lawyer and human rights activist Katie Green recalls a trip with a group of refugees to Sculptures by the Sea. One of the sculptures was a rusted boat, turned on its side in the sand. Mahdi joins her on stage as the voice for each person on the beach that day; remembering their journey to Australian shores, and thinking that the sculpture looked even better than the boat they had arrived on.
The combination of storytelling and images helps decode the social reality of what we, the audience, are witnessing. These personal stories help us understand the complex histories and experiences of asylum seekers that we may not otherwise see. They are stories of detachment and fear, yet also of the joy and generosity that culture brings us.
In Afghanistan, Mahdi advocated for the rights of women through theatre, creating performances using dance and movement. Bringing a small taste of his work to the Tribunal audience, he moves around the carpet, soon joined by his cast members, spurred on by the clapping of the audience. Towards the end, the participatory nature of the play is widened. The lights come up, Iraqi tea and sweets are passed around. The clinking of glasses and the sipping of tea transforms the stage into a sitting room, inviting questions and thoughts from the audience.
Tribunal is a means, as opposed to an end. It opens up a conversation, asking us to think honestly about what we’ve seen. Drawing you in to these personal, cross-cultural experiences, the question is posed: what will you do with this knowledge?
As Aunty Rhonda says, we are witnesses to the strength, resilience and creativity of humanity – Tribunal is in session.