Yanagai! Yanagai!

La MaMa E.T.C., in association with Australian Aboriginal Theatre Initiative (www.aboriginaltheatre.com), will present the American premiere of “Yanagai! Yanagai!” by Andrea James, directed by Harold Dean James (no relation) and Karen Oughtred, January 8 to 25, 2009. The play is a theatrical feast of story, music, puppetry and magic realism. It celebrates the oral traditions of the Yorta Yorta people, whose history predates the Druids and the Egyptians. It is also a heartfelt plea for long-overdue justice, with sections taken from transcripts of an infamous Australian court decision denying meaningful recognition to the Yorta Yorta and their ancestral land claims.

“Yanagai! Yanagai!” evokes a place where past, present and future exist as one. It is set in a mythical landscape on the banks of a mighty river, which the Yorta Yorta call Dhungula and white fullas call The Murray. A clan of storytellers gathers to invoke the beautiful place they once knew, to sing it into being. Some are stories worth remembering, others are told so they may never happen again. Children and elders, spirits and ghosts, dingoes and min-min lights are threaded together in tales of colonial law, a people and their land.

Joy Kelly plays Munarra, a Yorta Yorta mythic hero, communing with a Murray Cod in Yanagai! Yanagai! by Andrea James, a play inspired by the history and courage of the Yorta Yorta people of Australia. The play has its American Debut January 8 to 25, 2009, presented by La MaMa E.T.C., 74A East Fourth Street, in association with Australian Aboriginal Theatre Initiative. Photo by Aimee Levine.

A Yorta Yorta creation story on the making of Dhungula is background to the play. Munarra, a female spirit, is cast out of the Dreaming by her ancestor, Biami, with her two dogs and digging stick. As she walks to the ocean she is so homesick that she cries and her tears form the river.

“Yanagai!” is a Yorta Yorta word meaning “Go away” that confronted the intrusion of the first white people seeking passage through Yorta Yorta territory in the early nineteenth century.

Andrea James is author of Yanagai! Yanagai! and is a proud descendant of a Yorta Yorta clan. Photo courtesy of Melbourne Workers Theatre.

Author Andrea James drew upon traditional creation stories, courtroom transcripts and conversations with Yorta Yorta elders to write the play. It was a protest against a 1998 decision by an Australian Federal Court Judge, Justice Olney, that dismissed efforts by the Yorta Yorta people to achieve stewardship of lands in Northern Victoria on the border of New South Wales, including parts of the Murray River and surrounding lakes, which are important to Yorta Yorta culture and tradition. The decision held that the native title had been “washed away” prior to the end of the 19th Century by “the tide of history.”

Ms. James writes, “I watched as my elders came back from the courtroom witness stands ashen and shaken by days – of relentless and calculated questioning designed to break down, dismiss and counter Yorta Yorta culture – ”

“Yanagai! Yanagai!” was first produced by Playbox Theatre, in collaboration with Melbourne Workers Theatre, at The C.U.B. Malthouse, Melbourne, in 2003, directed by Andrea James. The author and three actors were proud descendants from specific Yorta Yorta clans. Nominated for a 2004 AWGIE (Australian Writers Guild Award), the play has had Staged Readings in New York (AATI), the Phillipines, Kenya, France and the U.K.

Melbourne Stage (Jan Chandler) wrote, “‘Yanagai! Yanagai!’ is impressive theatre. It tells an important story in a beautiful, emotional and entertaining way. It informs and it challenges, but above all it is life-affirming.” The Age (Cameron Woodhead) called it “immersive and deeply affecting theatre.”

The New York based Australian Aboriginal Theatre Initiative, Inc. (AATI), founded in 2003 by Artistic Director Karen Oughtred, presents new plays to an American audience by established and emerging international and U.S. indigenous artists. Since 2004, AATI’s unique programming has featured over 150 indigenous artists at its annual Festival of plays and performances. Collaborating and supporting organizations include; the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian, Martin E. Segal Theatre Center/CUNY, United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, the American Indian Community House, La MaMa E.T.C., New Dramatists, New Georges, Malthouse Theatre (Australia) and Ilbijerri Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Theatre Cooperative (Australia). Educational outreach is integral, with the visiting artists conducting workshops free of charge at universities, colleges, theatre institutes and public schools.

Harold Dean James plays a Yorta Yorta Elder in Yanagai! Yanagai! by Andrea James. Photo by Aimee Levine.

Co-director Karen Oughtred, founder and Artistic Director of AATI is an Australian theatre artist resident in New York with a background in educational theatre, direction and production. Her involvement in theatre with indigenous populations was fostered in Australia working with Aboriginal students and continued in the U.S. with Native American artists. She is a graduate of New Actors Workshop (Mike Nichols, Paul Sills, George Morrison) and gained her MA in Theatre from Antioch University. She has developed and taught Process Drama programs, mask and puppetry workshops in Australia, U.S.A. and Taiwan. Oughtred also works in interactive museum theatre, writing, creating, directing and performing. She is currently co-developing and directing the Mt. Vernon Hotel Museum’s outreach program, and interactive musical “Fare For All at the Mount Vernon Hotel.” As Production Stage Manager, she works for a variety of theatre and dance companies in New York City, including the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.

Puppeteer Spica Wobbe is an independent puppetry artist originally from Taiwan whose work has been seen in Japan, Korea, Hong Kong, Germany, Holland and the U.S. She has worked and studied with master puppeteers Damiet van Dalsum (Holland), Albrecht Roser (Germany), Peter Schumann and Ralph Lee (U.S.). She authored “Heaven of Puppets.”

Costumer Ramona Ponce has been nominated for both the IT and Hewes Awards and has long-term relationships with TWEED Theatre Group, The Hotel Savant, Watson Arts and has costumed Lypsinka, Varla Jean Merman and Lulu LoLo. Her costume and bridal art has been exhibited at LaMaMa Galleria and the Joseph Gross Gallery in Tucson and she has crocheted pieces for Project Runway’s Chris March’s Final Collection.

Lighting design by Anthony Mulanix. Set and video design are by Harold Dean James. Costume design is by Ramona Ponce. Puppetry design is by Spica Wobbe. Set construction is by Jim Beasley. Photo imagery is by Aimee Levine. Live music is by Yukio Tsuji.

The actors are Harold Dean James, Cezar Williams, Joy Kelly, Tyree Giroux, Rashidah Bernay Fowler, Janet Miranda and Matt Langer.

The preview performance January 8 will be a benefit for the production beginning at 7:00 pm. Tickets are $50 and will include the show and an after-show reception at 8 Mile Creek Restaurant. Benefit tickets are available at: www.aboriginaltheatre.com/index.php/support/benefit.php.

“Yanagai! Yanagai!” will be presented January 8 to 25, 2009 at La MaMa E.T.C. (First Floor Theater), 74A East Fourth Street, Manhattan. Performances are Thursdays through Saturdays at 8:00 pm; Sundays at 2:30 pm (except benefit evening January 8, which is 7:00 pm). Tickets are $18/tdf. The box office number is 212-475-7710 and online ticketing is available at www.lamama.org.

Jonathan Slaff
Jonathan Slaff writes on cultural events from the brainy, the edgy and the good. He helps us keep ahead of the curve in the world of the arts and culture.