MY NAME IS JIMI
MY NAME IS JIMI, Queensland Theatre and Sydney Festival at Belvoir, 5-21 January 2018. Photography by Daniel Boyd: above - Jimi Bani; below - Dmitri and Petharie; below again - the brothers Bani
After Prize Fighter, 2017’s surprise Festival gem, the Deep North delivers to Sydney another treasure in the autobiographical, stand-up, history play My Name is Jimi. It’s fronted by the charismatic Jimi Bani and features five members of his immediate family, some neat retro-technology and artful sophistication. And it’s the most entertaining and compelling portrait of Indigenous life and culture since Leah Purcell’s Box The Pony and Ernie Dingo’s breakthrough comedy.
Bani begins the evening by charming the audience out of its metropolitan reserve in about three minutes flat. Then he introduces his home – Mabuiag Island in the Torres Strait – then one by one, his mother Agnes and grandmother Petharie, his brothers Conwell and Richard, and son Dmitri.
Separately and together, led by Bani’s amused and amusing narration, the four generations draw the audience into the world of the Torres Strait islands, the complex culture, history and society of their Wagadagam clan and the equally intricate interweavings of one multi-generational family.
Co-created by Bani and director Jason Klarwein, the 80-minute show tells fabulous stories of the islands’ creation and past, initially through Jimi and also via colourful, cartoon-like dioramas. Cutout figures of villagers, spirits, fish and a fearsome crocodile are manipulated by the brothers and the action is simultaneously filmed and projected on the theatre’s back wall.
It’s fun, clever, effective and also neatly illustrates Bani’s late father’s view that modern technology is here to stay and it would be wrong not to use it – but not let it abuse their way of life. (At this point Dmitri is oblivious to what’s going on as he has an earpiece in one ear and is glued to his phone screen.)
My Name is Jimi is an exhilarating lesson and trip for us Sydneysiders into a world few of us know anything about. We are familiar with the classic horseshoe-shaped head-dress of the islands but the what, how and why of it has probably, to this point eluded most. The same goes for the various levels, positions, names and rules within a family and the songs and dances that go with them and their rituals.
One scene, for instance, while tongue-in-cheek and funny depicts traditional dress and its lore and variation even as it transforms into present-day traditional dress: boardies, footy shirt and back-to-front baseball cap. On a more serious yet equally drolly related topic, Bani takes us back to the arrival of western religion and anthropology.
Clad in academic gown and floppy hat and draped over a chair in a Cambridge study, Bani briefly becomes the anthropologist AC Haddon whose multi-volume study of the islanders was an earnest labour of love. It didn’t of course stop him going home with crates stuffed with artefacts and anything else he could law his paws on.
The story relates how, despite a promise to return the vital ancestral objects when a suitable repository was built, that building remains empty. The British Museum is still clinging on to the precious and unique treasures. Their continuing absence is sorrowfully referred to by the Wagadagam clan as the Great Silence.
Equally important to the islanders’ wellbeing, however, is the preservation of their knowledge and culture in song and dance. These tell of when and how to go after certain fish, how to deal with seasons and weather and all the other vital expertise that goes into safety and wellbeing on the remote islands.
After his father’s recent death Bani is about to become the ninth chief of his clan. If he can ever get Dmitri off his phone long enough to learn the dances (rather than the hip hop at which he’s adept) the young man will one day be the tenth chief.
It’s a microcosmic insight into the macrocosm of modern life, ancient customs, old and new technologies. The four generations of family on stage are a clue that this is a show for all ages. It is funny, illuminating, sad, enlightening, clever and amazing by turn. Treat your mob to My Name Is Jimi and I guarantee you’ll learn about yourselves as well as another world and world view. Not least because, as Jimi says, when you get down to it we’re all the same. It’s just that some of us are funnier, wiser and kinder than others. Don’t miss.