A Sydney theatre company wants to take on racism in Australia. And not just racism out there, but racism in our homes. Racism at your dinner table and mine. The Laden Table is being performed at Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney, and director Suzanne Millar shares how Christian, Muslim and Jewish women united to tackle “dinner table racism”.
“What’s confronting is you can recognise yourself or people in your immediate circle, on stage,” warns Millar, about the play which centres on what happens when a Muslim family and Jewish family sit down together. Framed around two key religious celebrations – Eid and Yom Kippur – The Laden Table emerged out of common experiences shared by its two main writers, Yvonne Perczuk and Nur Alam.
Having sat in on dinner table conversations which unsettled them due to levels of casual racism and prejudice, Perczuk and Alam teamed with other Muslim, Jewish and Christian women to respond through scripting a piece of confronting art. But why didn’t a Christian family also end up on-stage in The Laden Table? Millar explains that Perczuk and Alam were writing from their traditions, and the director assures that it is exciting to see plays about people or topics which the majority of audience members are not familiar with.
The Laden Table has gone through a few years of development. Some audience members walked out of earlier versions, due to fearing the play was just going to be offensive, not insightful. “A lot of plays talk about racism but this is one where you actually hear it on stage, in a fairly confronting way. But there’s been a lot of care taken with the crafting of the play, to make sure that there’s representation and community involvement and accuracy around history and things like that.”
“I think, more than anything, the play is exploring the things they have in common.”
Millar assures that both religions are treated fairly, well and equitably. But working so hard at showing what is the same between the two religions surely runs the risk of pretending that there are not significant differences. Millar agrees that is a risk but she maintains that The Laden Table isn’t trying to airbrush reality. It’s trying to humanise it.
“In theatre, there is someone standing in front of you, living that life. I think what that demands is a much more empathetic and respectful response. It challenges you to question what you might have held to have been fact.” Helping to spread messages of understanding and respect from the stage is the practice of inviting audience members to stay after the show, to finish off the food on the actual laden table. “It encourages people to then have the conversation that you normally have in the car on the way home,” says Millar. “Having it right there with the people who have triggered it.”
Several times, Millar explains that The Laden Table is not political. Yet during the time of the play’s formation, major shifts in Australian and international politics have lit the fuse of racial tension. From the rise of Donald Trump and return of Pauline Hanson, to Brexit and Europe’s refugee crisis, the world which The Laden Table enters is a political powderkeg of race relations.
“It is a little bit too simplistic of me to say it’s not political because we are wading into the mix of some incredibly complex politics. But, at the core of it, is really the hope that we might hear stories and understand a little and might treat one another with a little bit more respect and dignity. I think that that is the thing theatre can do – it can challenge people to do that.”
The Laden Table is being performed at Kings Cross Theatre, Sydney, until March 25. Click here for tickets and times.