Blak Cabaret: “Like my mum says, any excuse to wear a dress, right?”

6 years ago
Til Knowles

After some time zone mix ups, Kamahi Djordon King is finally on the phone. Rehearsals start on Monday, and there’s only a week of them before Blak Cabaret heads up to Sydney to perform in the Famous Speigeltent as part of the Sydney Festival. “I have faith the rehearsals will go well, but Constantina has some lines to learn!”

King’s cabaret personality, the cheeky Constantina Bush, will be MC’ing the latest iteration of Blak Cabaret. The character was producer Jason Tamiru’s first choice for the role. “She’s so beautiful, and so strong,” Tamiru says. She provides license and confidence. “We can go anywhere, us two together.”

Constantina is comedic and charming. She’s a character rather than a drag queen. “When I studied acting, everyone was always talking about ‘becoming’ the character, and even in third year I never felt that. Not until Constantina. I’m still me, but she’s there fully,” King muses. If it’s him on stage, he might choke, but not Constantina – “she’s quick witted. She never gets stuck.” Personality wise, much of the character is based on the women in King’s life, his aunties and sisters. She’s also a vehicle for Aboriginal rights that complements King’s visual art. “Plus,” King laughs “she wins awards!”

The character has been around for over four years now, and King thinks she’s developed a lot, particularly in Blak Cabaret. This is due to the other writers, in particular, Nakkiah Lui. “Nakkiah’s hilarious,” King says, and she’s also taking Constantina in new and exciting directions. “What she’s talking about has changed a bit. She’s always been cheeky, but not dirty. Constantina doesn’t swear, but now she’s playing a character who does.”

It’s a different experience to King’s previous work with the Malthouse. He played the Fool/Narrator of the critically acclaimed The Shadow King, an Aboriginal version of Shakespeare’s King Lear. Originally King was brought in to the project as an interpreter but was given the role after the original actor pulled out, despite being much younger. The Shadow King is in fact due to tour England as part of an event run by the Royal Shakespeare Company sometime soon.

Kamahi becoming Constantina (photograph taken by Daniel Boud)

Jason Tamiru is the creator and producer of Blak Cabaret, as well as the head of Indigenous Projects at the Malthouse Theatre. The show was originally conceived three years ago as the hub of the inaugural Melbourne Indigenous Arts Festival. It was designed to be entertaining for Aboriginal Australians, a show that didn’t pander to the white mainstream for the sake of politics or grant money. It worked, and the show sold out – since 2012, Blak Cabaret has been touring around major cities and regional Victoria. Now, it’s opening the Malthouse Theatre’s 2015 season.

It’s been a time of immense growth for the show, Tamiru says, especially now that it has landed at the Malthouse, a mainstream artistic institution. It’s become something that’s more reflective of his personality and questions of identity in general. There’s room to be confident and the artists involved are equal despite surface level discrepancies in age and fame. The scripting process has been collaborative too: “I want everyone involved to feel ownership,” Tamiru adds. The structure that developed was natural, automatic, with respect and honesty.

Blak Cabaret is a layered experience from several perspectives. As a variety show, it has everything from a cabaret diva MC (Kamahi Djordon King as Constantina Bush), well known musicians (Bart Willoughby) to dancers (Nikki Ashby). The performers span generations, and as such, the sense of identity they bring to the stage is as varied as their talents. Singer and songwriter Emma Donovan is an inspirational example of the resurgence of traditional language in contemporary music Tamiru says excitedly. The cabaret form itself is something that can be traced through aboriginal entertainment, variety shows are a natural extension of sharing and exploring everyone’s skill sets. In its more mainstream iterations, cabaret has ties to minorities, particularly the queer community. It is a of outlandish exploration of identity.

Tamiru also loves the “dress up” aspect of the theatre, both on the part of the performers and the audience. He wants to encourage people to get out, to put on a tie or a dress: “Like my mum says, any excuse to wear a dress, right?” The performers are lavishly made up and well dressed too: “Everyone looks beautiful,” he says, beaming.

blak cabaret

The production is also a part of Melbourne’s inaugural SummerSalt Festival, an outdoor celebration of the arts. As such, Blak Cabaret will be staged in the forecourt of the Malthouse Theatre. It’ll be twilight as the show starts and dark by the time the lights go down. “And of course, you know what the building next door looks like,” referring to the Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, “should I tell you? Well, it’s Uluru!” Tamiru laughs gleefully “maybe we should put some didgeridoo players up there.” While the location doesn’t matter much to Tamiru, the outdoor setting links to the themes and narrative of the show. “We could perform anywhere from the desert to Flinders Street Station.”

The premise of the production is the inverse of Australian history; Constantina Bush is a pioneering Queen, claiming land with her own flag. Her performance is a series of five vignettes, satirising colonisation, and in the words of both King and Tamiru, “turns history on its head.”

King is unsure as to how the outdoor setting will affect the show, as Constantina is much more familiar with the atmosphere of the Speigeltent – but there will be the familiar cabaret tables.

Blak Cabaret is provocative, versatile and emotional. The script read-through produced reactions that will hopefully be indicative of the audience’s responses – it went from “jovial” to “shrinking”, withdrawing, to jovial again. “It’s very different from anything else indigenous that’s being done nationally” Tamiru says. He is often frustrated in trying to express his political points, he is an activist. He’d stand on the steps of the state library with a megaphone if he thought it would help. “Education is key. We need to get information across. We need to shake the rafters,” Tamiru says. “I think the show will either strengthen or weaken your sense of identity. There’s an Australian identity crisis. It’s a wayward country, it’s lost. We’ve come to help out.”

Given the strength of the performers and creative team, Tamiru is confident the show will go well. In fact, he seems to only have once concern – “I’m a bit worried about the weather,” he admits. February in Melbourne can be a hot and humid place. “I just have this image of Constantina’s make up sliding off her, running down her face,” he laughs.

Blak Cabaret runs from the 20th to the 25th of January at the Speigeltent in Hyde Park as part of the Sydney Festival. Tickets are $45 or $41 concession. People under the age of 18 must be accompanied by an adult.

Blak Cabaret is on in Melbourne as part of the Malthouse Theatre’s 2015 season and SummerSalt Festival the 10th of February and runs until the 21st. Tickets range between $30 and $60. You can follow Malthouse Theatre on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, or head to their website for more information.

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