nytheatre.com review by Martin Denton
January 11, 2009
Yanagai! Yanagai! is a play by Andrea James about the struggle of the Yorta Yorta people of southern Australia to regain title to the land they once inhabited—land that was taken from them by British colonists in the 19th century. It is a story that I certainly didn't know and that I suspect most people in the world are unaware of. But that doesn't make it unfamiliar: when I was a boy, tales of how British and other Europeans claimed North America from the "Indians" were taught and recounted unapologetically, but progress has been made in our civilization and the same stories of slaughter and stolen lands are regarded more and more as shameful. Hearing this particular tale, from halfway around the world, only reminds us of the irrevocable damage and loss wrought by the Age of Empire.
The play itself is a hybrid of courtroom drama and nonlinear folktale. The former portion benefits from the inherent drama of any court proceeding, as we watch witnesses questioned by a Judge and a Counselor (the QC) in a show trial that feels designed entirely to "prove" that the British/Australians were entitled to the Yorta Yorta's land based on a variety of unseemly technicalities. James's writing is at its strongest in depicting the testimony of several Yorta Yorta people who want desperately to document a culture and a way of life that they know is likely to disappear from the face of the earth forever:
QC: Now Mr Wallace, we're just going to ask you, for the court records, a few questions about what you know.
UNCLE: I've got important things to say.
QC: Good. Can you please state, for the court, your mother's name?
UNCLE: Priscilla. Priscilla Louise Wallace.
QC: Thank you Mr Wallace. Can you please state the name of your father?
UNCLE: My father taught me how to fish using an old canoe and spear. You ever seen that?
QC: Your father's name?
UNCLE: He'd get a long skinny reed and tie it in a knot and put it down the grub hole, tease him until he bites, then whip him up. He showed me that.
QC: Your father's name...?
The parts of the play that happen outside the courtroom are diffuse and less compelling, perhaps because an American audience doesn't have all the background necessary to understand some of the Australia-specific references. It involves a sort of mythic figure who travels the countryside (and backward in time?) with a pair of dingoes, to finally confront the man who originally stole the Yorta Yorta land nearly 200 years ago, Sir Edward Curr.
A misstep by co-directors Howard Dean James and Karen Oughtred starts the piece off on the wrong foot: the entire audience is herded onto the stage when the theatre doors open, where they stand, mostly mystified, while the first scene plays out around them. This attempt to implicate the audience in the play and the events it depicts turns out to be a distraction that makes it harder (and makes it take longer) for us to start to really listen to the powerful messages of Yanagai! Yanagai!
Once we hear them, though, the importance of this play as a social-political-historical document becomes clear. The Yorta Yorta—who, the program tells us, now number only about four thousand—are lucky to have Andrea James to give them a voice that now, thanks to La MaMa and the Australian Aboriginal Theatre Initiative, is being heard hemisphere away from their native homeland.