The Deep North

The Deep North
By Matt Hawkins with music by James Bannah Jr. South Australian Playwrights Theatre. Adelaide Fringe. The Lab @ Light Square. 10 - 21 March, 2021

‘Where are you going? / Where do you come from’ is the opening ensemble number of The Deep North – a new African-Australian musical currently playing at The Lab @ Light Square as part of this year’s Adelaide Fringe Festival. This opening number encapsulates what this wonderful ‘coming-of-age-musical’ is all about. Originally from Uganda, Jasmine Mutesa (Pontsha Nthupi) is a young girl living with her Uncle Ebby (Stephen Tongun) and brother Ben (Tumela Nthupi) in Port Augusta.

Through her ‘white’ teacher, Ms. Taylor (Samantha Riley), she has been given the opportunity to gain a scholarship by to attend the illustrious King’s College in Adelaide to further her singing career. Whilst there is little doubt that Jasmine will be accepted and go, nonetheless, she is full of self-doubt and concerns about her relatively dysfunctional family battling to exist in rural South Australia.

That there is a potential conflict in Jasmine taking the scholarship is cleverly suggested in the opening scene between Jasmine and the Headmaster of King’s College (Matt Hawkins) when he asks what she is reading; Jasmine replies ‘ “Things Fall Apart” by Chinua Achebe’, to which she is told that the students are currently studying Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Furthermore, for her ‘audition’ Jasmine must learn and present a song by Bach – in German.

This and other scenes are reminders that there is an entrenched and dominant ‘white’ culture that needs to change. Will it? Not at this stage. As the headmaster later informs Jasmine after she has gained her scholarship she will learn to ‘sing our songs’ – the ‘songs we tell you to sing’. The musical begins and ends with the questions ‘Where are you going? / Where do you come from?’ as Jasmine departs to begin her new life, but one thing she has realised is the importance of her family and ‘home’.

Issues of identity, cultural and personal, dreams and hope, and what exactly is ‘home’ for these relative ‘strangers in a strange land’, are the subject of this extraordinary new musical. Extraordinary because it is the first of its kind – an African-Australian musical that deals with the African experience of living in Australia. Matt Walker and his team should be congratulated to the highest level for brining these hitherto relatively unheard voices to the Australian stage.

The music and songs by James Bannah Jr (in collaboration with others, including DyspOra and Pontsha Nthupi) are truly thrilling, covering a range of African styles – soukous, hi-life, Afrobeat, R n B, rap, and blues – as well as more conventional musical theatre numbers. James Bannah Jr is on-stage and plays live throughout the performance. Whilst the rap numbers are theatrically exciting, and certainly invigorated the audience I was with, nonetheless, two of the most poignant numbers were the duet ‘She Can Do This/I Can Do This’ by Jasmine (Pontsha Nthupi) and her teacher Ms. Taylor (Samantha Reilly) and the spoken lament by Uncle Ebby (Stephen Tongun) about his lost son, Moses. The beautiful harmonious singing and acting of Pontsha Nthupi and Samantha Reilly made this a highlight, whilst Stephen Tongun’s performance throughout the show was a subtle reminder that many in the current African-Australian community carry with them horrific scars from their respective African homelands, a subject very rarely dealt with (if at all) in modern Australian drama.

What also makes The Deep North such an engaging piece of new Australian theatre are the actors. They are all terrific! What they may lack in technical skill and experience is more than compensated by their warmth, passion, and commitment – you care about these characters. Pontsha Nthupi and Stephen Tongun are joined by the equally engaging Tumela Nthupi as Ben, and Ben Tamba as his wayward friend AJ. There is a beautiful scenes of reconciliation between Uncle Ebby, AJ, and Ben towards the end of the show that once again reminds us of the horrors of ‘Where’ these people have come from, but with the hope that ‘Where’ they may be going will be a better future.

Highly recommended.

Tony Knight

Click here to read more Adelaide Fringe 2021 reviews.

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