REVIEW: GURR ERA OP: A Poignant Ode to Home, Identity, and the Fight against Climate Change

Ghenoa Gela
's GURR ERA OP, a collaboration produced by Force Majeure in association with ILBIJERRI Theatre Company, transcends the boundaries of traditional performance art, weaving a poignant narrative that delves into the profound connection between place, identity, and the urgent environmental challenges faced by Torres Strait Islanders, which extends to us all.

The remarkable ensemble of performers, which includes Taryn Beatty, Aba Bero, and Berthalia Selina Reuben, join Gela in exploring the deeply personal and collective struggle of Torres Strait Islander women who grapple with the imminent threat of climate change. While firstly introducing their ancestry and connectedness, the rising tide soon encroaches upon their motherland. These artists then raise critical questions about the essence of identity and cultural preservation in the face of an uncertain future.

The thematic underpinning of GURR ERA OP is laid bare in the contemplative questions posed to the audience: "What would you do if you could never go back home? Is your identity bound by place or by self? What happens to your culture when the physical place that holds your ancestral stories disappears?" These inquiries serve as a powerful catalyst for introspection, inviting the audience to empathise with the profound challenges faced by the performers and their communities.

The performance skillfully weaves together contemporary storytelling, movement, spoken word, and cultural celebration, offering a multi-dimensional exploration of connection to family, duty, and ancestral stories. The Torres Strait Islands, currently on the front lines of climate change, serve as a poignant backdrop, highlighting the urgency of addressing environmental issues that threaten not just a physical place, but an entire way of life.

Gela's artistic vision is further illuminated through an artist statement that underscores the deeply personal nature of the performance. The fear of displacement and the looming reality of ancestral homelands succumbing to climate change serve as powerful motivations for Gela's creative expression. "GURR ERA OP," translating to "The Face of the Sea" in Meriam Mir (the language of the Eastern Islands of the Torres Strait), becomes a rallying cry and an embodiment of resilience in the face of adversity.

Technically, the soundtrack's rhythmic cadence serves as a heartbeat, guiding the audience through the emotional landscape laid bare on stage. It's a reminder that culture, like music, evolves while retaining its fundamental essence. The lighting is well directed to great effect, also serving as a means to change scenes, one of which occurs as if by magic. Like all good theatre, the stagecraft not only complements but elevates the on-stage action. The seamless integration of all elements enhances the performance, a deliberate effort to foster this cohesive experience.

Beyond the stage, GURR ERA OP extends an invitation to the audience to actively participate in the fight against climate change. The "Our Islands Our Home Campaign" emerges as a crucial call to action, urging individuals to support Torres Strait Islanders who have won a historic legal battle against the Australian Government for climate inaction. The performance seamlessly transitions from an immersive artistic experience to a catalyst for meaningful engagement with environmental activism. It's a beautiful and touching performance.

In fact, GURR ERA OP is more than a performance; it is a celebration of culture in the face of climate devastation. It serves as a vivid imagining of loss, a call to action for a better future, and a testament to the resilience of Australia's indigenous communities. Ghenoa Gela and her ensemble offer a masterful blend of art and activism, leaving an indelible mark on the hearts and minds of those  privileged to see this powerful and timely production.

Sydney Festival
The Studio Theatre at Bangarra
13 - 19 January
60 mins (no interval)

Learn more about the inspiration behind GURR ERA OP in the short documentary streaming on Sydney Festival’s AT HOME platform. You can also watch a multi-camera live recording of the show on Saturday 20 January 2024.

Further performances are planned for other Australian venues in 2024

(images: Prudence Upton)