Othering - Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre (NSW)
Produced and Performed by Debra Keenahan
Reviewed by Juliana Payne
Friday 13th January – Sunday 15th January Casula Powerhouse Arts Centre, 1 Powerhouse Road, Casula NSW 2170 Tickets: https://www.sydneyfestival.org.au/events/othering
Debra Keenahan is angry. Tired, as she wearily confesses, but still very angry. She’s channelled this rage – as so many artists have done – into a performance that calls out powerfully for a reckoning. Our times are a time of reckoning for many who have lived, for generations, with injustice and discrimination. That is not to say that any one of them does not have a case for which the privileged culture has to answer. We on the privileged side of the ledger must face up to this and somehow rectify it if we can.
Keenahan starts the performance as she means to continue it – with confrontation and a hard hitting mix of dark humour and harsh reality. She challenges our standardised perceptions of contemporary culture by disco-vamping down the stairs of the theatre while Donna Summer belts out a classic number, which is brought to an abrupt halt by a recorded insult.
This sets the scene for the framing of her performance, with disembodied voices handing down insults, medical diagnoses or historical BBC-type summaries of the history of dwarfism.
This performance was as much about awareness raising and truth-telling as the agit-prop type of radical feminist performances that women presented in the late sixties and early seventies second wave of the women’s movement. Society needed it to snap itself out of its complacency. As much as the suffragists threw themselves in front of racehorses to make a point in the early 20th century, so does Keenahan throw herself and her history in front of the audience to make her case. It shouldn’t need to be like that, but unfortunately it still is. The power of theatre is that it enables her to present her representative story so eloquently and movingly.
Structurally, this one-woman show plays out like a TED talk but with better theatrical framing and devices. Kate Shanahan’s set design was simple, subtle and utterly effective. The cube of gathered white curtains represented both a hospital ward and a screen which distorted the video and photos of family and children projected thereon, highlighting the highly emotive issues that Keenahan was exposing in her deeply personal script.
The performance was mostly well paced and the arc was intelligent with its highs and lows – she lulls audience into an almost comfortable zone – and then the killer punchlines kick in. This was a very sophisticated tactic and many may feel uncomfortable, which is exactly what Keenahan wants.
Debra Keenahan calls upon us all to bear witness to past injustices, to own our history and to sign up to a better future based on what she calls the power of respect. We need people like her in all communities who have suffered for so long to bring the privileged society to account.