Performing Lines WA has been busy this festival season. They’ve produced four unique and diverse works for Perth Festival this year, which is no small effort during a global pandemic that featured a snap lockdown and a fortnight of restrictions here in Western Australia. Two of those performances opened this week, the first being Mararo Wangai’s music-filled Black Brass at The State Theatre’s Studio Underground.
Black Brass is an engrossing exploration of character, identity and memory told through the eyes of a fictitious African immigrant in Australia who finds himself suddenly caught between two worlds, despite his best efforts to slough off the skin of his former life. Wangai plays this man, who works as a cleaner in a music studio. It’s a thankless job, and as he enters the studio, he finds the place wrecked with empty beer bottles, pizza boxes and a particularly clingy used condom. He has accidentally tripped the studio’s alarm in the process, and has to phone the boss to get the new code to disarm it. We hear his excessively deferential manner towards the owner, indicating that he could be living in a very precarious, insecure state. We get a deeper look at the challenges he faces as an immigrant with a troubled past, and witness his desire to make a new life for himself here.
He’s not alone in that studio, though. He turns to the recording booth window and discovers the back of someone’s head on the other side of it. The stage revolves and we meet Mahamudo Selimane sitting in a chair with an electric guitar in his hands. The cleaner is alarmed and interrogates him; the man is mute, and the cleaner convinces himself it was his error and asks for the man’s forgiveness. We get the feeling that the cleaner has had to apologise again and again, even when he’s done nothing wrong.
Eventually the musician and the cleaner enter into a dialogue, with Selimane speaking through song and Wangai speaking through every expressive tool at a performer’s disposal. His monologue, the thrust of the show, is expansive, full of poetry, imagery, pathos, and musicality. The audience is transported to his character’s tumultuous past in Africa, a fictional composite of the true lives of several Africans who Wangai spoke to in developing this project. The musician is the persistent echo of the cleaner’s past. He is the multitude at the centre of the cleaner’s being, the axis around which the story revolves, both in a figurative and literal sense.
Zoe Atkinson has made use of a revolving stage to embody this thematic movement between two worlds. The set spins, sometimes slowly, sometimes with momentum, in response to the text’s rhythms, twists and turns. So do the lights, designed by Lucy Birkinshaw, with lush magentas and warm golden ochres to take us to different places in time. Sound design by Tim Collins blends Selimane’s live song with other environmental sounds and recorded backing to create a “real” world and an “other” world to support the narrative.
Director Matt Edgerton, along with dramaturg Afeif Ismail and script editor Sisonke Msimang, have helped bring Wangai’s idea to life in a way that feels organic, germane and respectful to the source material. Selimane’s music paints every feature of this world with vibrant colour. With this work, Wangai comes to the fore and takes his rightful place as one of the city’s essential creative voices and most gifted performers. Black Brass is music to our ears.
Photos by Christophe Canato