Sunday, 2 August 2015

I AM A MIRACLE: Challenging abuses of power (Or, How to change history)

Adam Goodes. Sandra Bland. Cecil the Lion. Bronwyn Bishop.

Four vastly different stories that have filtered through news and social media over the last few weeks, that have basically nothing in common – except they are all about systemic abuses of power. Goodes and Bishop are intensely local stories that have vied for our attention in Australia. Sandra and Cecil are both stories we’ve heard a hundred times before – and this week, we argued about which should outrage us more.

All of them important. None more important than any other. Bishop may have resigned today, but the system she was using to her own advantage continues. Goodes may not have played football this weekend, and the tide of support has turned toward him – but those who booed him last week probably still wish they could boo him this week. And some, hopefully, have woken up to themselves.

I Am A Miracle. Photo by Pia Johnson

I Am A Miracle by Declan Greene and directed by Matthew Lutton, currently playing at the Malthouse Theatre, was inspired by a miscarriage of justice – a severely mentally-handicapped man executed in Texas in 2012. In some ways, the play is about that miscarriage of justice – but the full scope of the work touches on the divine and the structural problems of society that lead to his impoverished upbringing and his death.

It’s a response to Marvin Lee Wilson’s execution, but actually tells three entirely different stories: a soldier in an 18th Century Slave Colony in Surinam; a man – suffering from Alzheimers - and his wife in modern day Australia; and the story of an Angel, watching over Marvin Lee Wilson, trying to change the course of history.

Comparing Goodes to Bishop or Sandra to Cecil, the media – both traditional and social – reduces the importance of all of them, except in the way questions have been raised. The status quo has been questioned. The public won’t just accept “that’s the way it is” anymore.

We don’t think an Indigenous football player should be abused for being proud of his heritage. We don’t think a politician should get a free ride. We cannot accept the narrative of a healthy, happy black woman dying while incarcerated. We don’t believe a dentist should be able to hunt and kill lions for sport.

But what will change exactly? What can be changed? How can we affect change?

That is the question at the heart of I Am A Miracle. This is society as it has been built by history. These are the problems that history has caused. What can we do about people who are marginalised? What can we do about these systems of power that create the spaces for people to be marginalised.

The solider in Surinam (played with such power by Melita Jurisic) is part of a society that keeps slaves, but he has empathy for them. Can he change the world he lives in?

The man with Alzheimers (Bert Labonte in another outstanding performance, after his multiple characters in Birdland) loses his memory before our eyes. How can we change the outcome of his story?

And the Angel (vocalised by Hana Lee Crisp, in a stunning operatic performance) can do nothing so much than try to change all of history – create a miracle – to save Marvin Lee Wilson’s life.

Is the only thing that can change the outcomes of all these stories the titular miracle? Or can we be inspired by this piece of work to challenge our assumptions and find the miraculous in the every day?

In an interview with Radio National, director Matthew Lutton – recently appointed the Artistic Director of the Malthouse Theatre – was asked whether it was the Malthouse theatre’s responsibility to always tell new Australian stories.

Lutton said:
“It’s certainly not going to be a company where every story we see on stage is explicitly about Melbourne right here now in tangible ways but it will always be connected to the contemporary thought, the contemporary moment. But Malthouse needs to think broadly... we need to be re-evaluating ourselves in history, re-evaluating ourselves politically and personally.”

I Am A Miracle were the last words of a man executed in 2012 in Texas. This play, written for him, is about him, about a soldier, about a man and his wife and the pressures of Alzheimer’s disease. It’s set now and at the beginning of time itself.

It’s not about Adam Goodes or Sandra Bland or Cecil the Lion or Bronwyn Bishop or asylum seekers locked up outside the arms of our laws or enemy combatants still in Guantanamo Bay or Al Jazeera journalists imprisoned in Egypt for doing their job.

But, by some small miracle of theatre, it is.

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