Thursday, 21 January 1999
What Do They Call Me?, 21 Jan 1999
by Eva Johnson
at Trades Hall until January 30, 1999
Reviewer: Kate Herbert
One of the roles of theatre has always been to educate its audience. Eva Johnson's autobiographical play, What Do They Call Me?, adheres to this philosophy perhaps more than it does to art.
The play is comprised of three monologues performed by Marie Andrews. The quality of the writing is variable but the intention is clear. Johnson presents us with the story of Connie Brumbie, an ageing aboriginal woman who speaks to her cell mate after she has been arrested for assault.
The two characters who follow this tight little characterisation are her two 'stolen' daughters. Regina, a "White Bread" social worker who was adopted by a middle class Adelaide family, is now struggling to come to terms with her recently discovered aboriginality.
The other is Alison, "a radical feminist amazon warrior lesbian" with a white lover who is ostracised by parts of the female aboriginal community because she "does not look oppressed ".
German playwright, Bertolt Brecht, wrote screeds on the positive impact of didactic theatre but Eva Johnson seems bent on lecturing us more than is necessary. Connie's story manages to maintain a potent dramatic core as well as being informative about the plight of women in her position Her tale is compelling and could be woven throughout the following two monologues to hold the play together.
The device of having each character talk to an unseen listener is less effective for Regina and Alison. There is less dramatic content and much of the emotional content is described to us rather than enacted. The moment when Alison meets her birth mother Connie is the most moving scene in her monologue.
The piece makes a statement but is repetitive and slow moving with limited dramatic appeal. However, its content is important and Marie Andrews, whose day job is as a barrister, is a warm and engaging performer, particularly as Connie.
Her other two characterisations are less successful perhaps because of the preaching quality and awkwardness of the writing. This may also have contributed to the cause of a couple of 'blanks" Andrews suffered during the show.
Theatrically, What Do Thy Call Me? needs some tighter direction and dramaturgy on the script, but it is a strong example of didactic theatre.