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Photo by Tracey Schramm

Australian Theatre for Young People (atyp) present SUGARLAND in the ATYP Studio, Wharf 4, Hickson Rd. Walsh Bay. 27th August – 13 September.

SUGARLAND is a new Australian play, written by Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair. Directed by Fraser Corfield and David Page.

In 2011, ATYP began a series of residences in the town of Katherine in the Northern Territory. Over the following two years, playwrights Rachael Coopes and Wayne Blair spent two months in this unique place. The aim was to create a story that would allow people around the country to gain a personal understanding of what life is like growing up in remote Australia. … SUGARLAND was presented to the community of Katherine before opening at Darwin Festival.

Now, it is showing at ATYP Studio, in urban Sydney, and well worth catching.

What is interesting about this work is the content of the play which is truly ‘shattering’ – remember the Warwick Thornton, 2009 film, SAMSON AND DELILA. For, otherwise, the form of the writing is conventional; the directing merely straightforward in its shaping and guidance; and the performance skills of the participants, ranging from dance backgrounds, to informal and formal acting training, produces a level of visceral impact that is, only, charmingly disarming – while, on the other hand, it does allow us, as the audience, to a cumulative immersion of identification and empathy, as we become familiar with the characters. The evolved natural comfort in the acting and the ensemble work of the performers is a gentle strength, with the writing content, to reveal, what is essentially an agit-prop theatre-in-education work.

Hunter Page-Lochard, recently seen in BROTHERS WRECK, as Jimmy, is the most secure of the actors, giving dimension and generous support to the production, particularly to Dubs Yunupingu, as Nina, the narrator, a relative novice to ‘acting’. Narek Arman, as a more-than-less assimilated Iraqi refugee, Aaron; Elena Foreman, as Erica, a dislocated and disturbed school girl from the local RAAF Base, Trindal; and Michael Cameron as ‘white-boy’ Charles (also, doubling as an Indigenous youth) give a kind of naturalness to the events of the story that has no self-consciousness, or judgemental values about it. Rachael Coopes, one of the writers, plays the only adult in the text, Penny, the over burdened, governmental ‘foot-soldier’ social worker, attempting to balance, frustratingly, Katherine realities with out-of-touch policy realities dictated from Canberra, to support the youth under her jurisdiction.

The play’s content focuses on the young of Katherine, a selection of school-aged teenagers, and the ‘culture’ that they live in (there are some 30 different ethnic groups/nationalities living together in Katherine; the highest percentage of homelessness in Katherine is found among the population between the age of 12-18). It shows the day to day survival behaviours of these ‘kids’ as they wield their way through the social, multi-cultural, bureaucratic, and climatic obstacles/ pressures of living in a remote community such as Katherine. That what we see is ‘shocking’ to some of our sensibilities (mine, at least), and yet in the world of the characters, is just a part of the ‘normal’ choices necessary to endure, is where the tension of the content of this play strikes an amazing chord of confrontation and learning, and makes it an essential reason to see SUGARLAND.

Episodes of drug and alcohol abuse, truancy from school, demonstrations of ‘sniffing’, ‘choking’, ‘cutting’, the reported dysfunctional family backgrounds – with evidence of the physical abuse, forcing extreme behavioural choices, such as deliberate pregnancy to find a place of rescue – governmental ineptitudes, are all mixed with the pop culture of music-rap and dance (there is a featured singing contest driving part of the narrative – realistically handled!), and the other normalities of swimming and sunning and teased-filled interactions of the hormonal young. The strength of the experience of SUGARLAND is in the integrated ‘normalness’ of it all, for these young people.

The Design elements: Set, Jacob Nash; Lighting, Juz McGuire; Costume, Ruby Langton-Batty, were simply, but attractively accommodating for the demands of touring (the black glossed floor, covered with saw dust/brown dirt (?) – just a little too art directed, considering the realities of the material of the play, I thought). The Sound Design, by Guy Webster, is especially useful to the cultural accessibility of the production’s experience.

Much like the Richard Linklater, 2014 film, BOYHOOD, where the dramas of growing-up in a particular environment is simply told without the usual dramatic crisis events or judgements and moral ‘rightings’ – rather as, this is life; and the experience of the culture revelations in Omar Musa’s astounding new Australian novel, HERE COMES THE DOGS (2014), where the shock of the realities and the apparent community social acceptance of these realities are both cauterising, and yet mesmerising, thrilling, to be witness to, in what otherwise are, sometimes, sanitised mediums, is what, also, makes SUGARLAND, a kind of must see. A contemporary trio of cultural contributions of timely observations and moral questings.

The young members of the audience I saw SUGARLAND with were ‘stoked’ at its truthfulness, no matter the social discomfort, perhaps, from their teachers – this play reflected some of their realities, indeed. No ‘helicoptering’ protection from truths, going on here, but, instead, an uncensored mirror to our world, their world- so much content for discussion in the classroom, for sure.

ATYP, last presenting, M.ROCK, and, IN THIS FAIRFIELD, earlier this year, indeed, have curated a program that is really ‘cooking’ in 2014. I recommend a visit to SUGARLAND. I felt it a much more authentic experience (no less important, though) than the recent, BROTHERS WRECK. The fable story told by Nina to conclude this production is worth listening to, and, after pondering, taking to one’s heart and contribute to action.

SUGARLAND: Contemporary agit-prop/ theatre-in-education, par excellence.