On the same evening that a 15 year old Muslim boy shot and killed a worker as he left NSW Police Headquarters, Parramatta, in an apparent random terrorist attack, a drama of a very different kind was playing out in Bankstown. The juxtaposition proved to have a very painful and important relevance. The Bankstown performance was the opening night of The Way, on October 2, the third in a trilogy directed by Stefo Nantsou and produced by Bankstown Youth Development Service, BYDS. Like the first two plays of the trilogy, the story was developed from the life experiences of the people participating. Stories were then workshopped and interwoven with other stories, so that the origin wasn’t necessarily recognisable, but the basic facts remained true.
The Way opens with many of the same characters who appeared in the earlier productions waiting at Sydney airport for the arrival of friends and family members who are coming home. Among them is the Samoan Tamati family expecting the return of son and brother, Oscar, whose impulsive act of violence has left the family still shattered. Hajj and his two grandchildren wait anxiously as Mohammed emerges much later than his friends. The young men have all been on a fishing trip to Thailand. A Vietnamese son waits for his elderly father, who is coming to live with him. The Del Sol family are looking for Emelia, who has been asked to come home to help with her pregnant sister. Her single mother can’t cope with the family on her own. Slowly, couples, individuals and families of all cultural backgrounds make their way through the airport. As with previous productions, some of the acting is highly developed and professional, others are newcomers from within the same community, but the atmosphere is warm, authentic and inclusive.
There are moments of drama, angst, excitement and comedy. Most pertinent to this story is the glimpse behind the scenes of the four friends returning from their fishing trip to Thailand. Border protection officers are openly suspicious of the boys. “Why were you in Thailand?” they keep asking. “To catch fish,” the boys reply with growing frustration. “Yes, but what else were you trying to catch?” “Fish!” they shout. Ali and his friends counsel calm, but Mohammed is exasperated. One officer, played by BYDS director Tim Carroll, instructs his fellow officer to take the other three and release them and then proceeds to interrogate and threaten Mohammed. He talks about extremism and adds gratuitous comments like “one in three terrorists is called Mohammed.” Eventually, Mohammed emerges into the arrivals lounge, but he is almost incoherent and unable to explain his experience.
Grandfather Hajj (Stefo Nantsou) and his grandchildren Kayla (Emni El Masri) and Walid (Abdullah Sankari) are worried about the state he is in. He is usually an open and gentle person. The other stories weave in and out of this one interspersed with a repeating, possibly recruitment, video of an angry young man in front of a hooded character, ranting about his anger and a sense of injustice. Mohammed has retreated to his room and is not responding to any requests to come out. He has his laptop open on his floor, watching the video. He is saying despairingly, “I am extremely gentle, I am extremely kind, I am extremely respectful . . .”
Eventually, the door opens, Mohammed manages to tell his story and is received with great compassion and sympathy by his grandfather and family. It was clear that many people in the cast and in the audience were Muslim and recognised the daily experience of abuse and their strong sense of exclusion from the former Prime Minister’s “Team Australia.” In one airport scene, someone remarks that when they left, there was one prime minister and when they returned, there was another. The laughter and relief were unmistakable. The Way continues at Bankstown Arts Centre to Saturday, October 10. Bookings and information phone 02 9793 8324, click here.
After the performance, Tim thanked the audience for their support and explained that this was likely to be the last of these productions, owing to the cuts to Australia Council funding in the last Federal budget. For more than 20 years, BYDS has worked on projects with local high school students and the Bankstown community, which essentially give participants the experience of putting themselves in another person’s shoes. The growth in creativity and performance skills has been amazing to watch, while the deeper experience of interpersonal understanding has been of immeasurable importance in a culturally diverse and sometimes fractious community. It’s a social contribution Australia can’t afford to lose.
Photos, top and bottom, are from rehearsals for The Way.