City of Gold | The Saturday newspaper
It would be easy to label actor and early playwright Meyne Wyatt city of gold – now in a new production for Sydney Theater Company – as a play about racism and police brutality. It certainly covers these issues, but this categorization also demonstrates part of the problem Wyatt is tackling: the inevitability of dehumanizing stereotypes even when presented as a desire to be “educated” about racism.
Wyatt plays Breythe Black, a young and handsome “native actor” – his quotes – who is on the verge of becoming famous. We meet him, spear in hand, shooting a tacky Australia Day lamb advert that he clearly finds demeaning. When he learns that his ailing father has died in Kalgoorlie, he resigns and returns to the City of Gold.
Strip it down and this story is about losing a loved one before you could show them what they meant to you – and being denied the right to grieve.
Prodigal son Breythe is visibly out of place in rural Western Australia, as seen in his obnoxiously flawless white Nike trainers. They impress his devoted cousin Cliffhanger (Ian Michael) but his older brother Mateo (Mathew Cooper) is eager to tell Breythe that they will soon be covered in the red Kalgoorlie dust that clings to everything.
Even in their grief, the family cannot escape the whiteness that dominates the social landscape. There is no respite from the hostility of white townspeople or the threat of brutality from local police. This black family is not allowed to mourn a deceased member in peace and dignity; as with all other parts of their lives, the death rituals are marked by the racial prejudices of non-Indigenous Australia.
From the moment Breythe returns home, a time bomb ticks. The only question is, for whom? In the meantime, there are family matters to settle. With Breythe readjusting after living so long on the east coast and brooding Mateo consumed by his own pent-up resentment, it’s up to their sister, peacekeeper Carina (Simone Detourbet), to take care of the practicalities. funeral arrangements, keeping the encroaching whites at bay, and preventing the brothers from hurting each other.
Wyatt has an assured stage presence and confidently leads a small cast, some making their Sydney Theater Company debut. Designer Tyler Hill’s background in fine art and architecture is evident in its austere yet functional ensemble: the front verandah of a typical backcountry home is placed diagonally to allow a full view of the rows of hallways that make up the home, a design that is cleverly used by lighting designer Verity Hampson to direct our attention where it needs to be at pivotal times.
Shari Sebbens, who played Carina in the play’s original run, moves on to direct this production and opts for the understatement. There are stumbles here and there – for example, I would have liked to know more about the mother of the Black siblings, referenced but absent from the action – but you never know when you will come face to face with a priceless nugget . Trevor Ryan as Breythe’s recently deceased father, for example, enjoys exponential resonance thanks to the costume’s simple design – even in flashback sequences, when he teaches his young sons and Cliffhanger to hunt kangaroos. , he still wears his funeral costume. Is this story as it happened or as Breythe remembers it?
Wyatt’s witty script contains a few knockout lines, and he delivers the second act’s opening monologue perfectly. Commanding the stage from the roof of the house, he relentlessly shifts from humor to raw anger, grief, sarcasm and back again. Throwing barbs at performative progressives who “can’t be considered racist” but hold the same attitudes as the overt racists he knew growing up, Wyatt captivated audiences. Its targets include the respectability politics of nice celebrities such as Dwayne Johnson and the infamous Will Smith slapping incident. “Never trade your authenticity for acceptance,” he demands, setting the tone for a stellar second act.
city of gold premiered at the Griffin Theater Company in 2019, at a time when Wyatt was mourning the father he had lost four years earlier and was deeply unhappy with his own acting career. It was the year before the murder of George Floyd that reignited Black Lives Matter protests globally. Wyatt, who is Wongutha-Yamatji, was rocked by the murder of a 14-year-old relative in his home town of Kalgoorlie and then the death of teenager Warlpiri Kumanjayi Walker, who was shot dead by a white police officer. He dedicated Griffin’s opening night performance to Walker.
In 2022, the topic of the play is only gaining in relevance. Yet even as it rushes to its inevitably brutal end, there is room in the room to experience the love of family and community at the heart of this story about a family that is never allowed to just sit with his pain. “I don’t regret not being there when Dad died,” Breythe said. “I regret not having treated him better during his lifetime.”
These emotions are what the siblings would deal with if it weren’t for the racism that haunts them even in their most private moments. This is vividly highlighted in an exchange between Breythe and Mateo, with the latter serving as a mouthpiece for the politics of respectability that Breythe so abhors. Mateo has no patience for Black Lives Matter protests led by internet activists who he says know little about the realities of life in their city, and he provokes his brother by suggesting that the negative image of white people is at the least in part the result of black people “doing wrong”.
As loose cannon Mateo, Cooper sometimes threatens to steal the show. His controlled urgency shows flashes of the dignified rage simmering beneath Mateo’s aloof exterior that Mateo so valiantly, albeit mistakenly, tries to suppress. “Either bury it or live with it,” he taunts Breythe. But his own anger and grief cannot be lived or buried: they demand to be faced head-on.
Cooper delivers city of goldis the most subtly heartbreaking line. After one of their tense interactions, Breythe – who has been having recurring dreams about her father since arriving home – rushes to bed. “Say hi to daddy for me,” Mateo tells him, but Breythe has already left. There is so much loss, guilt and longing behind those six words that no one answer could suffice. And nothing is given.
city of gold plays at the Wharf 1 Theater in Sydney until June 11.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 under the headline “Nuggets of bread”.
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