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La MaMa E.T.C. in association with the Australian Aboriginal Theatre Initiative presents Yanagai! Yanagai! by Andrea James (Yorta Yorta)
Yanagai! Yanagai! evokes a place where past, present and future exist as one. On the banks of "Dhungula" sacred trees, familiar fishing holes, cheeky dingoes, min-min lights and the ghosts of the past weave a deep connection to the land. A theatrical feast of story, music, puppetry and magic realism. It celebrates the oral traditions of the Yorta Yorta people, whose history predates the Druids and the Egyptians. It is also a heartfelt plea for long-overdue justice, with sections taken from transcripts of an infamous Australian court decision denying meaningful recognition to the Yorta Yorta and their ancestral land claims.
Directors: Harold Dean James & Karen Oughtred
Music: Yukio Tsuji
Lighting: Tony Mulanix
Set Design: Harold Dean James
Costumes: Ramona Ponce
Puppets: Spica Wobbe
Featuring: Elizabeth Clark, Rashidah Bernay Fowler, Tyree Giroux *, Harold Dean James, Joy Kelly *, Janet Miranda, Cezar Williams *
* Members of Actors' Equity Association.
Made possible in part with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs and supported by the State Government of
Author Andrea James drew upon traditional creation stories, courtroom transcripts and conversations with Yorta Yorta elders to write the play. It was a protest against a 1998 decision by an Australian Federal Court Judge, Justice Olney, that dismissed efforts by the Yorta Yorta people to achieve stewardship of lands in Northern Victoria on the border of New South Wales, including parts of the Murray River and surrounding lakes, which are important to Yorta Yorta culture and tradition. The decision held that the native title had been "washed away" prior to the end of the 19th Century by "the tide of history."
Ms. James writes, "I watched as my elders came back from the courtroom witness stands ashen and shaken by days…of relentless and calculated questioning designed to break down, dismiss and counter Yorta Yorta culture…"
Director Harold Dean James is adept at transforming the stage space into other dimensions, often through innovative use of video. This time he has collaborated on the design concept with Puppeteer Spica Wobbe and Costumer Ramona Ponce to create a landscape unlike others, having the attributes of a living work of art. James’ previous La MaMa productions have demonstrated his unusual use of technical effects to expand the concept of the stage space. His "X Train" (La MaMa, 1994) was a subway trip with special video effects that unraveled into a "Twilight Zone haze" (Hannaham, Village Voice). James' other La MaMa productions include "Dance Card" (1996), "Call Backs" (1998), "What Happened to Me" (2000) and a musical, "The Good Faith," (2003). In all of the above, he was playwright and director. He has also directed "First Kill," written and performed by Frank Damico (1999), and "The Lunatics' Ball," written by Claudia Menza (2006).
Co-director Karen Oughtred, founder and Artistic Director of AATI is an Australian theatre artist resident in New York with a background in educational theatre, direction and production. Her involvement in theatre with indigenous populations was fostered in Australia working with Aboriginal students and continued in the U.S. with Native American artists. She is a graduate of New Actors Workshop (Mike Nichols, Paul Sills, George Morrison) and gained her MA in Theatre from Antioch University. She has developed and taught Process Drama programs, mask and puppetry workshops in Australia, U.S.A. and Taiwan. Oughtred also works in interactive museum theatre, writing, creating, directing and performing. She is currently co-developing and directing the Mt. Vernon Hotel Museum’s outreach program, and interactive musical "Fare For All at the Mount Vernon Hotel". As Production Stage Manager, she works for a variety of theatre and dance companies in New York City, including the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian.
Tales of Tribal Land and Courtroom Drama
The New York Times
by Neil Genzlinger
The best moment of “Yanagai! Yanagai!” occurs when the house opens and the audience members are escorted not to their seats, but to the stage, where they are soon enveloped by chants from the cast members:
“We are here.”
“Thousands of trees.”
“They hold our spirits.”
It is a moment best experienced with eyes closed; you can briefly feel as if you are in the land of the Yorta Yorta, the indigenous Australian people whose experiences this unconventional play seeks to portray. The moment doesn’t last long — soon the audience is nudged toward the seats — but it’s a nifty mood-setting start.
After that, though, the play, by Andrea James, may ask a little too much of an American audience. It weaves together fragments of folklore, scenes involving Edward Curr’s initial contact with the Yorta Yorta in the 1800s (the play’s title means “Go away”) and courtroom exchanges from an unsuccessful 1990s case in which the Yorta Yorta sought title to what they argued were tribal lands.
The play’s components, though, are left so sketchy that audience members who haven’t done their homework beforehand may not get the full impact. Several performers, however, make their characters stand out (most cast members play multiple roles), especially Harold Dean James as an old man who still feels viscerally connected to the land even though younger Yorta Yorta have lost touch with the traditional ways. And Cezar Williams energizes the show with a dazzling few minutes as a cocky witness in the trial, shooting his mouth off first in English, then in the tribal language.