REVIEW: The Hate Race by Maxine Beneba Clarke

This is how it happened.

The stage version of Maxine Beneba Clarke’s biographical book, The Hate Race, begins, as most theatre shows in Australia do, with an Acknowledgement of Country. But it’s not the disembodied voice of Malthouse staff. It’s not a pre-record by a member of the ensemble. Zahra Newman, who will soon share some of Maxine’s life with us, is on stage, naming the lands of the Wurundjeri and Boonwurrung out of respect but also to fix us to a place.

This is where Maxine lives, where she works. But her family heritage is long; born of a Jamaican father and a Guyanese mother, who both grew up in England. It’s world-spanning. But the story begins in so-called Australia, even if she is forever the outsider – according to kids at school and teachers and people at the supermarket and people on the street and, and, and –

This is how it happened.

A brief prologue sets up the fear Maxine still feels as a parent and an adult. Abuse screamed from a passing car. For a moment, she thinks – hopes – the invective is not being shouted at her. She thinks she’s stumbled across a domestic argument. But no, it’s for her. It’s at her.

In the opening pages of Clarke’s book, the words are there for us to see, to read, to soak in. In the play, in Zahra Newman’s re-telling of it, in the way she carries herself, in her face, and through the choice to leave the hate unspoken and unheard, the audience still feels how shocking this kind of everyday violence must be for her. Even if some of us, like me, have no real idea.

Then the play retreats into Maxine’s childhood. The late 80s and early 90s in suburban Sydney. Kids riding bikes. School projects. Show and tell in front of the class. Reading Smash Hits magazine. Her sister’s poster of Luke Perry on her bedroom wall. Drinking Cottee’s cordial and sneaking a Yogo into mum’s shopping trolley when she’s not looking. John Farnham. Peter Russell Clarke. Frente! It all feels so familiar to me.

The casual racism. The fixation on her skin colour. The kids at school not absorbing any of her stories because all they see is a family from someplace else. The teacher who wants to know where’s she’s from, even though she was born in Sydney. Her parents lived in the UK, but apparently that’s still not the right answer. And Maxine wonders if she’s “a slave” because that’s the only context her classmates have for people of African descent.

It’s a whole other world existing next to the world where I lived.

There’s something quite powerful in this very specific story feeling just a little bit universal. Where universal means all those 80s references that I did get, in firm contrast to the feelings and experiences I did not have.

It made me think about the kids of colour I went to school with. I heard words used as weapons against them. I was severely bullied myself, but this is not about me. This is not my story. It’s a story of the kids I knew, whose feelings I didn’t grapple with at the time.

This is how it happened.

Zahra Newman is excellent, as always. She’s Maxine, but she’s also her sister and her mum and her dad and her grandma and her kid brother. And in contrast to Seventeen at the Melbourne Theatre Company recently, she always felt like whatever age she was playing. There is something very specific about the way a kid swings their arms when they aren’t getting their own way. Or the cheeky smiles they have when they do. In Newman’s hands, we are safe and always know who we’re with and what is happening. Her performance is joyous and playful and in the passages where the micro-aggressions start to pile up, we’re right there with her. By her side.

Newman is accompanied on stage by Kuda Mapeza, who plays music, sings songs and is there to support Newman-as-Maxine throughout. With a laugh. With a song. With some very 80s dance moves. There’s something so smart in choosing to make this one-woman play into a two-hander; Maxine’s story is now, through the collaboration of making this show, the story of everyone involved. The Hate Race is about sharing stories and passing them on. 

Co-directors Tariro Mavondo and Courtney Stewart have crafted an exquisite piece of biographical theatre – two strong hands helping to guide an extraordinary group of theatremakers. Zoe Rouse’s set – swirls and curves on the floor with a half-moon backdrop – suggests the land we live in but also the twists and turns of Maxine’s family history. Rachel Lee’s lighting subtly directs our eye and surprises us with its contrasts and layers.

The Hate Race is a thrill for how funny it is, and how simply the audience is drawn in with songs and references from our own childhoods. It’s extraordinary the epic scope that is given to Clarke’s family history – Newman-as-dad telling the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade so a kid can understand it is a sharp bit of writing and performance.

The play is so smart in what it chooses to show and not to show, while never shying away from the truth of Maxine’s life and her experiences and what we might understand when we reflect on our own lives. And the lives of others whose worlds have intersected with ours.

Sharing stories creates knowledge and empathy and compassion and strength. It was a privilege to see inside Maxine’s world for a while and, after laughing along with things from my childhood, learn so much about how her life happened.

- Keith Gow, Theatre First

The Hate Race is playing at the Malthouse until March 17th.

Photos: Tiffany Garvie