Several weeks ago I was part of the dutiful family cheer squad watching my nine-year-old sister perform in her school’s item for Wakakirri. For the uninitiated, Wakakirri is the national ‘story dance’ competition, open to both primary and high school students.
As suggested by the competition’s slightly comical name, this event asks schools to tell a story to the audience through the use of dance and movement. Try to imagine a lower-profile Rock Eisteddfod without the singing, but with just as many sequins and the ballet mums in the dressing room.
Now, don’t panic. I haven’t yet turned into one of those blinkered and deluded middle-aged newspaper columnists who think that the everyday antics of their family are what the entire city wants to read about over their Saturday morning coffee. In fact, the opposite is probably closer to the truth, for it was actually another school’s act that caught my attention and is the story that should be told.
After an evening that had seen schools across Sydney give performances, which interpreted well-known picture books and famous legends such as Aladdin and Anastasia, there was some surprised murmuring that spread through the audience when the cast from Pendle Hill Public School took to the stage with blackened faces and army khaki.
Wakakirri items have no dialogue, but the story the children from Pendle Hill told us that night was perfectly clear. A family is living happily in an African village when it is attacked by rebel forces without warning. In the ensuing violence the mother and children get the chance to escape the village. They walk for a time and then they get on a plane destined for Australia.
When they arrive, the children attend an Australian school, but have trouble settling in. The other children try to include them, but the African children get angry, frustrated and have flashbacks to the violence they witnessed. The schoolteacher has to mediate a number of playground incidents before the class reaches a point where they can all play together. And then the curtain fell.
A simple story, it sent shivers down my spine from start to finish for one reason. This story wasn’t a fairy tale. This story wasn’t the product of someone’s creative imagination. This was their story – the story of the class who was giving the performance.
The area around Pendle Hill has become a gathering point for Sydney’s growing Sudanese community, practically all of whom have arrived in Australia as refugees. I know this because I know about the local community groups who work tirelessly to pick up where the almost non-existent government services leave off in helping families to start to live and work in Australia.
For anyone in the audience without this background knowledge it was still clear that the item told the school’s own experience by the fact that about one sixth of the children on stage needed no makeup to play African characters.
Despite this, not everyone shared my enthusiasm for the piece. While I wanted to stand up and cheer from the 30 second mark of the performance, there were plenty of audience members looking pretty uncomfortable at that point.
By the end of the piece, the standing ovation I had anticipated never happened, despite my best efforts. Admittedly, the audience, who had been expecting something along the lines of Snow White, may have been taken aback by the honest portrayal of violence in Africa and disruptions in the school playground. But, to me, this honesty is what made the performance so powerful.
This wasn’t sugar-coated multiculturalism with its melting pot metaphors, international food markets or instant community harmony. This performance gave a totally honest reassessment of the actual mechanism by which the outcomes of ‘multiculturalism’ are achieved despite the inadequacies of state resources that accompany the rhetoric.
The story it told was of constructive engagement between cultures, not just the fairy tale of simple coexistence. Importantly, it also reminded the audience that our teachers and our schools have a hugely important role to play in the building of communities.
At the moment, there are far too few avenues by which the experiences of Australia’s many refugee communities can be portrayed for the wider society. The result is a very real limitation on Australian society’s understanding of the value of difference and the insight and knowledge encapsulated in the migrant experience. Equally, it is far too seldom that the honest stories of these communities where refugees become integral and valuable members of the wider society are told.
Ironically, it was a piece of primary school theatre that managed to do both quite successfully, when they seized their 10 minutes of fame.
It’s a shame to have to admit it, but I know that it took a lot of guts for the teachers and principal of Pendle Hill Public School to enter that item. Much of the audience may have preferred to see you perform a fairy tale. Cheers and congratulations on not taking the easy option.
The Federal Education Minster made it clear recently that he would have perhaps liked to see you perform an ‘Australian story’ like that of Simpson and his donkey. But I agree with Pendle Hill Public School that there are other real, very Australian stories that need to be told.
The fact that these other stories incorporate the experience of cultural and racial difference so often a paralyser of dialogue only makes it all the more necessary that these are the stories we hear.
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