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Why a caged bird sings

Yirra Yaakin Theatre Company, Cracked ·
Subiaco Arts Centre, 11 May ·
Review by Xan Ashbury ·

Cracked is a play about a mother’s struggle for freedom. It opens and closes in song.

In mournful yet hauntingly beautiful song. And by the end of it, we know why a caged bird sings.

Frances (an outstanding portrayal by Bobbi Henry) is an Aboriginal woman, 15 months into a prison term. She misses her children, who’ve been put into foster care, and she sings in the prison choir. Her plight reminded me of the bird in Paul Laurence Dunbar’s classic poem, Sympathy. The poem describes the awful experience of a bird trapped in a cage. The bird flaps its wings and sings, not because it is happy but because it is desperate and sad. Dunbar used the bird to represent the oppression of his fellow African-Americans in the late nineteenth century.

Like that bird, Frances wants to be out with her flock. She wants to nest; she wants to fly. But her life has steered off course. Intergenerational trauma, poverty, insecure housing, lack of education and employment, domestic violence and methamphetamine use; these factors and more have led to Frances into crime and prison, and now threaten her prospects for parole and a new chapter with her kids. Frances speaks for Aboriginal Australians in similar circumstances.

Motifs of birds and flight are woven throughout the production, directed by Eva Grace Mullaley. They feature in the script, by Barbara Hostalek, and in the evocative soundscape by Mei Swan Lim and multimedia projections, by Mia Holton.

Bobbi Henry as Frances with (L-R) Luke Hewitt (John Rogers), Rayma Morrison (Aunty Pat) and Bruce Denny (Dwayne).

Despite help from her Aunty Pat (played to perfection by Rayma Morrison) and well-meaning community corrections officer Edwina (Holly Jones), Frances becomes frustrated and overwhelmed. At least behind bars she is assured of “three square meals a day, a roof over your head and no risk of getting smashed up.” So much for The Lucky Country.

The scenes charting Frances’s tentative freedom are gut-wrenching but skilfully executed. Sara Chirichilli’s clever set features a cell on a circular, revolving platform – as the plot nears the resolution, its symbolic value becomes apparent.

Holly Jones as Edwina and Matthew Cooper as Joel.

Hostalek’s characters are beautifully drawn, defying stereotypes and injecting energy and humour into what could otherwise have been a bleak play. Luke Hewitt is superb as an affable prison officer and Matthew Cooper is beautiful to watch as Edwina’s jaded colleague, Joel.

This is a memorable play with an important message. Perhaps Edwina best sums up that message, in her conversation with Joel about her clients: “They’re broken beyond all repair but I don’t want to give up on them.”

Cracked plays until May 18.

Pictured top is Bobbi Henry, as Frances, with (L-R) Bruce Denny (Dwayne), Luke Hewitt (John Rogers) and Holly Jones (Edwina).

All photo: Dana Weeks.

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