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Binno, an Aboriginal Elder once a member of a feted dance trio, has been asked to present a series of sacred dances for a 26 January celebration. He is unsure about it but his sister, the straight-talking Beenie (Venus), convinces him to teach these dances to a group of young boys who need to connect to the old ways, discover who they are and the truth about where they live.
The event is being organised by Pip; earnest and well-intentioned, a white woman who believes she may have some historical indigenous blood-ties. She has also booked Andy, a celebrated local actor, to read extracts from Cook's diaries as part of the festivities.
The boys chosen by Beenie and Binno are a motley crew; Brayden – disruptive, athletic; Charley Boy – over-eager, overweight; and Max, Binno's protégé, with his university book-learnt culture and exquisite singing voice. They bring modern challenges to traditional ways and, as they learn the dances and understand their meanings, they become part of Binno and Beenie's bigger plan….
Black Drop Effect is a bold new work responding to the 250th anniversary of Captain Cook's landing in Australia and premiering as part of Sydney Festival 2020.
Black Drop Effect emerged from a short term (2 week) residency by the Stiff Gins – Nardi Simpson and Karleena Briggs – in August 2018 at Bankstown Arts Centre (BAC). Landscape and the connection to Country was the starting point for the work.
Bankstown is known as the City of Two Rivers – the Cooks and Georges Rivers. These Rivers provided passage and resources to colonial incursions into Dharug and Dharawal Country. This history provides creative opportunities for communities to review and consolidate disparate and even adversarial views about Captain Cook's legacy to Australian history and nationhood.
'Black drop effect' refers to an optical illusion created during the transit of Venus – Captain Cook's mission in 1769-70 was to chart the transit of Venus from Tahiti before sailing south-west to explore the Southern Terra Australis.
Writer Nardi Simpson, drew on these references to create a multi-layered narrative that centres on traditional knowledge and the transference of culture juxtaposed with text from Captain Cook's diary. The story plays out against the backdrop of preparations for a local 26th January event. Black Drop Effect examines black/white and generational conflict, and the ongoing effects of colonisation.
Black Drop Effect reunites the highly skills creative team that produced the remarkable the Spirit of Things, which premiered at the 2016 Liveworks Festival at Carriageworks and toured to Yirrambol 2017. Black Drop Effect is led by Yuwaalaraay woman, Nardi Simpson. Nardi was the recipient of the 2018 Australia Council for the Arts Signature Works Initiative and the 2018 Black&Write! Indigenous Writers Fellowship with the State Library of Queensland. Nardi has also worked on a number of local Bankstown parternship projects, such as BYDS Stories of Strength and Resilience.
Director Felix Cross has worked with BAC on award winning projects including Night Sky (2017), The Lonely Spirits Variety Hour (2017/18) and the Prophet (2016) in partnership with BYDS. From 1996-2015, Felix was the Artistic Director of the acclaimed Nitro/Black Theatre Co-op in the UK.
Nardi and Felix are working with their 'The Spirit of Things' collaborators Yuwaalaraay woman and renowned designer Lucy Simpson, video designer Mic Gruchy and lighting designer Karen Norris to develop the world premiere of The Black Drop Effect. Joining this team are acclaimed First Nation musician James Henry, production manager Amber Silk, producer Katrina Douglas and executive producer Vandana Ram.
A Warning from Wesley and the Black Drop Effect
In mid 2018 I was lucky enough to be invited to the Australia Council's Signature Works Creative Lab. This week-long residency was an initiative of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Strategy Panel to inspire the creation of works of significance and scale. First Nations artists gathered from across the country to connect, challenge, share and explore. Wesley Enoch addressed one of the sessions, one late afternoon. He encouraged us to think big, to extend ourselves and practice, to move into territory unfamiliar and uncomfortable. He also gave what I felt was a warning. Leaning into the circle he stated clearly, '2020 is coming. We're going to be flooded with the colonial narrative. As artists, you need to be ready.' These words were marked, intense, their gravity a boulder, sinking in the sea. I spent the rest of the week thinking on his statement. There was a battle ahead. It would reopen scars. We were being asked to fight, to become warriors, to protect and defend this country's truth. He called upon us to stand as the frontline, to face the quickly approaching story wars with an arsenal of dance and song and art.
I left the week-long Creative Lab feeling inspired by my colleagues- visual artists and musicians, dancers and writers, curators and photographers and traditional tool makers, old and young and in between. I also left feeling I had much to do to be on par with those in the room. In the next weeks as I developed concepts for my own work, Wesley's foreboding had resided a little and I quickly settled in to thinking again about myself- my work, my art, the sound and shape of things I want to leave behind. An offering of another residency, this time at Bankstown Arts Centre quickly followed, BAS interested in supporting a new work, similar in scope to that of an earlier project, 'The Spirit of Things' I had co-created for Performance Space's Liveworks 2017. The residency would reprise a creative partnership with Felix Cross, a Trinidadian English director and composer. From Cook to Banks I travelled by train.
Development weeks were spent dreaming that beautiful state of creative ignorance, an endless, open sea of possibility before you with the comfort of land at your back. The beginnings of the Black Drop Effect brewed at that time- the phrase referring to an optical illusion that obscures the edges of two opposing objects. The measurement of the Transit of Venus was the pretence for the Endeavour's expedition. The black drop effect – a dark tear made as Venus touched the sun ensured any measurements defunct, the attempt a complete and utter failure. As were the initial scenes and scenarios I penned at that time. Despite completing the three-week writing period with a set of strong characters and story, when it came to drawing these out, committing them to paper, to writing the show I baulked. Would this work combat the insurmountable? Could it be a satisfactory scream? A cry from the colonised, the marginalised, the dispossessed? Would a show in Bankstown, performed in English and set in a conventional theatre speak of the loss, of the resilience, of the ingenuity and strength of Australia's first peoples? No. No single show ever could. No single writer or creative can do such a task alone. Wesley knew this. It is why he enlisted an army of storytellers and song keepers and guardians of motif and movement. The Black Drop Effect is a response to Wesley's challenge. For generations we have been preparing for this moment. We are now ready for the invasion's reprise.
Nardi Simpson July 2019
Working with Nardi on The Spirit of Things (for the Liveworks and Yirramboi festivals) brought home to me what a special talent she is; a skilled storyteller, musician and songwriter, with much to say of great worth. That particular production brought together a creative team right out of the top drawer and I was very keen to work with them again; so, I guess the starting point for Black Drop Effect was the artists: Nardi Simpson, Lucy Simpson, Fausto Brusamolino and Mic Gruchy.
We all wanted to work together again, but we only had vague notions of what our show might be about. Sydney Festival's announcement that 2020 would look at the 250th anniversary of Cook's landing gave us the focus we needed. Immediately before sailing to Terra Australis, Cook had been to Tahiti to observe the Transit of Venus across the sun. I was fascinated by one little detail of this; his calculations were distorted by an optical illusion that made the otherwise circular disc of Venus appear elongated whenever it 'touched' the edge of the sun. This distortion was known as the Black Drop Effect and to describe it exactly would take far too many long words right now. However, in the light of the subsequent 250 years of blood spilling and blood mixing, 'Black Drop Effect' revealed itself as a multi-layered title.
Nardi also introduced me to James Henry, who became our composer the minute I heard his beautiful, evocative music. So, we now had a group of artists and a title; we just needed a story.
One day, after many months of trying out story ideas and drafts that were all perfectly workable, Nardi came to me with a brand new completely written play that blew everything else out of the water. I had no idea when or where she had found the space and time to do this; it was as though, while we were developing one set of ideas, she had been simultaneously inhabiting a parallel universe in which she wrote something completely different. It was fresh, funny and right on the nail – saying all the things we had wanted to say, but better and with characters that were richly complex. Interestingly, it featured stingrays. Conveniently, it was also called Black Drop Effect….
I am delighted to be working with Bankstown Arts Centre on this show, it is my artistic 'home' in Sydney and to be bringing the Sydney Festival to this neck of the woods is extra special. We have decided to present our show outside, which brings new challenges – light spilling from uptown Bankstown, the threat of rain and the small matter of trains passing every twenty minutes. However, this choice also offers us lots of opportunities with scale, beautiful settings and playing with the underlying notion that this is all about land; its possession, the cultures that exist because of it and the cultures that tried to impose themselves on it.
Felix CrossJuly 2019
Hero image: Concept image of Black Drop Effect by Lucy Simpson.