“No. No, they still remain in Europe.” They are seven of the most powerful words spoken in My Name is Jimi, and they are spoken quietly by the grandmother of the show’s star, Jimi Bani. You might know Bani from characters he plays in Redfern Now, The Straits or Mabo (where he played the title role of Eddie Mabo). This time he is playing himself, the man in line to become the ninth chief of the tribe of Wagadagum, from Mabuiag Island in Torres Strait. Along with his grandmother and mother, he has brought two of his brothers and eldest son along to tell stories of their home.
His grandmother Petharie Bani’s words come after the tale Jimi tells about her adventures with his grandfather, chief Ephraim Bani. His grandfather was something of a polymath – a painter, filmmaker, composer, dramatist and pearl diver – and he also wrote down the island’s language and went to Canada where became a master of linguistics. Petharie and Ephraim also went to Europe, where they saw the tools and masks that had been taken from the Island by anthropologists such as Alfred Court Haddon. They were told the objects would be returned if Ephraim built a safe place to keep them, and so he came home and built a cultural arts centre on the island. They are still waiting.
It would be wrong from this description to imagine the show (a Queensland Theatre production) is weighty and earnest; this story, which takes up much of the play’s middle, is offset with constant humour and lightness. The evening opens when Jimi and his besuited brothers walk on carrying super 8 cameras – his father would make films of the family when Jimi was a kid, splicing their pictures with pictures of the same scene without them in it, making them disappear. Jimi quickly has the audience’s guard down by doing the same trick with us – making us appear on the screen at the back of the stage before being replaced with a scene of empty seats.
Jimi explains it’s his job to keep the island’s fire – its culture – burning.
Jimi and his brothers then break out dancing to KC and the Sunshine Band’s Shake your Booty – Jimi, while not a small man, glides so smoothly he would make Hugh Jackman look like a klutz. When he comes to the story of the stolen artefacts, Jimi does a very funny imitation of the Cambridge-educated Haddon wearing a funny academic gown and hat while dissecting the islander’s own costume. Haddon’s lecture on the island culture, prattling on about “cheerful friendly folk” and claiming the island teenagers are using MySpace in 2018, show his insights are no better – and perhaps worse – than a holidaying newspaper travel writer.
The show is visually stunning. Small dioramas of the island are placed at the back of the stage, and Bani and the cast use the cameras to project scenes and stories from them onto the stage’s screen. There is a bedtime story about the island girl who cried too loudly and was taken by a tall skinny monster with diamond-shaped legs (another story about something precious being stolen). When Jimi introduces a song about how the clouds tell them what day fish will be plentiful in a certain spot, the family sing while his brothers tell the story with the cameras and diorama, and we are brought into the island world of long white clouds and fish underwater.
Jimi’s grandfather and father are now gone – the stories of their loss that are dealt with briefly and might have been more powerful being confronted with more directly. Jimi explains it’s his job to keep the island’s fire – its culture – burning. When Jimi’s son starts taking phone calls on stage and becomes increasingly lost in a digital world, Jimi’s brothers tell a story about an island boy who looked across the horizon and daydreamed about land across the water. Jimi’s grandfather warned him that technology was about to take over, and that they must learn to use it wisely. Jimi listened to his grandfather and his show does just that. We are lucky that Jimi has asked us to listen to him too.
My Name is Jimi is on at the Belvoir Street Theatre until 21 January