Riverside Theatres, Parramatta, May 10
It must have taken an enormous amount of courage for Yarrie Bangura, Aminata Conteh-Biger, Yordanos Haile-Michael and Rosemary Kariuki-Fyfe to discuss their harrowing life stories with writer/director Ros Horin.
To then relive them on stage can’t be easy either – but the experiences of these four women are at the heart of a shocking, moving but joyous new production called The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe.
It is almost three years since Horin began researching the project and as she says in the theatre program the journey has been “intense, emotional, at times extremely disturbing. Full of tears, full of laughter, warmth, sharing, drumming, singing, dancing and mostly enriching, uplifting, inspiring.”
Bangura grew up in a refugee camp in Guinea having witnessed shocking barbarity during the civil war in neighbouring Sierra Leone. Conteh-Biger, the daughter of a wealthy Muslim businessman, was kidnapped and abused by rebels when they invaded the Sierra Leonean capital of Freetown. She was the first refugee to arrive in Australia from Sierra Leone in 2000.
Haile-Michael was abandoned by her father (who killed her mother) at age three and was then kidnapped, abused and forced to fight as a child soldier for the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front, before escaping to a Sudanese refugee camp. Kuriuki-Fyfe fled domestic violence in Kenya.
All four now live happy, productive lives in Sydney where they have variously learned to read, love, form friendships and (as told in a hilariously sweet story) ride an escalator. Each in their own way is working to help others.
Though untrained as performers the four women – each of them such different personalities – all have a strong stage presence.
In telling their stories they are joined on stage by professional actors Nancy Denis, Tariro Mavondo and Effie Nkrumah, singer/songwriter Aminata Doumbia, and dancers Eden Dessalegn and Lisa Viola.
Horin’s production uses a patchwork of storytelling, music, dance, video projections and humour. Sometimes the women call on other performers to talk for them at particularly difficult parts of their story, while they watch quietly.
Their experiences are intercut with other lighter-hearted scenes such as a quiz about the geography of Africa, a demonstration of the various different African dance styles and a gathering in a hairdressing salon.
Dan Potra’s set – a large hanging carpet with pot plants and wooden stools – is an evocative backdrop (lit by Nicholas Rayment), which is matched by the women’s wonderfully colourful clothes.
Running 100 minutes without interval, a little tightening wouldn’t go astray but The Baulkham Hills African Ladies Troupe is a powerful, uplifting and humbling experience.
As well as a shocking insight into the horrific, systemic violence against women taking place in parts of Africa, it is a celebration of the resilience and spirit of these four remarkable women as well as a powerful plea for refugee support programs.
Riverside Theatres until May 18; Belvoir St Theatre, August 15 – September 15