Black Ties, a rambunctious story of the union of two First Nations peoples, and the fraught coming together of their respective families, is perfect festival fare. Billed as a reimagining of the wedding rom-com from an Indigenous perspective, this high-octane, immersive co-production from Melbourne’s ILBIJERRI Theatre Company and New Zealand’s Te Rēhia Theatre, which receives its world premiere, is funny, smart and ultimately very sweet.
Black Ties. Photograph © Yaya Stempler
Directed by Rachael Maza and Tainui Tukiwaho from a script by John Harvey and Tukiwaho, Black Ties begins with the tentative engagement of Hera (Tuakoi Ohia), who is Māori, and Kane (Mark Coles Smith), who is Aboriginal. A spanner is quickly thrown in the works when the audience learns that Hera’s mother is firmly opposed to her marrying anybody who isn’t Māori, and it’s clear that Kane’s mother too will have to be won over to the idea of her son bringing home a girlfriend who’s not Aboriginal. What ensues is an amusing, perceptive clash of cultures, with the couple travelling to New Zealand and then Australia in order to seek their parents’ blessings.
The show’s first half is simply but effectively staged, with projections tipping the audience off to location as well as letting us in on the occasional text or videocall. The versatile band, comprised of Brendon Boney, Mayella Dewis and Laughton Kora, punctuate and drive the narrative with assured renditions of classic love songs and pop favourites, with most of the cast called on to sing as well as dance. As the central couple, Tuakoi Ohia and Mark Coles Smith are winning and game performers, managing to pull off the story’s tonal gearshifts with aplomb.
They’re surrounded by similarly committed actors, who put their own spin on roles familiar to the wedding rom-com. Most impressive and indispensable to the narrative’s beating heart are Lana Garland as Hera’s mum Sylvia and Lisa Maza as Kane’s mum Ruth. Though there are plenty of the kind of gags you’d expect from this tale of culture clash – each family tries to welcome their new addition with a clumsy but well-meaning gesture of respect, like the suggestion of purchasing a generic grass skirt for Hera – what gives Black Ties its power is an interest in how the First Nations peoples of Australia and New Zealand have been treated by their respective countries. Both mothers’ distrust of their child’s future partner stems from this awareness: Sylvia explains how hard she has fought for her people to stay on their land, aghast at the idea that Hera’s future children could be taken by their father to a foreign country, while Ruth urges Kane to remain in Australia to fight his people’s cause more strongly like his Uncle Mick (Jack Charles), reminding her son that “they’ve got what we don’t have here”, namely a treaty.
These more sober considerations are skilfully woven into this predominantly comic piece, as when Hera’s father, Robert, played by Tukiwaho, and Kane engage in a conversation about the pressures experienced by Indigenous men. Their heated discussion centres on the racist stereotype of the drunk, black father who abandons his offspring, with Robert afraid that Kane will desert his daughter just as he left his family when Hera was a child. It’s rare to see these kinds of conversations onstage, and rarer still for a theatre piece to define its Indigenous characters in relation to other First Nations peoples, rather than in contrast with their colonisers. The stage is populated with large personalities, the clever script imbuing each of them with depth and bigger stories of their own lurking just out of frame.
As for the wedding itself, it’s best not give too much away. The audience is, quite literally, thrust into the thick of the action, and it’s simply delightful. An unmissable experience.
Black Ties is at Sydney Festival until January 18, and plays Perth Festival and Asia TOPA before touring New Zealand