What do we think when we hear the word 'tribe'? A group; the idea of something eternal, something that stretches back into history. The members of the tribe may not be related, but they are strongly linked; bonded to one another in deep, sometimes inexplicable ways. So it is with Michael Mohammed Ahmad’s The Tribe, an intimate recounting of memories of an extended Lebanese family living their lives in Sydney’s South-West. Our narrator, Bani, tells stories of his grandmother, aunts, uncles, and even the boy that lived down the road. Most of the characters in the story are related to Bani somehow, but the tribe is vast, full of convoluted connections and shifting allegiances.
At the centre of the tribe is Bani’s Teta Yocheved, the family’s ancient matriarch. With her heaving belly, golden skin and wooden, arthritic hands, Yocheved presides over the family with a glowing presence, and this glow emanates from performer Hazem Shammas whenever her name is mentioned. It may be the most lovingly crafted portrait of a family member that I’ve ever seen, and creates a warm, strong centre for the complexities of the rest of Ahmad’s story.
Throughout about 90 minutes of oral storytelling, accompanied by Oonagh Sherrard on cello, Shammas weaves tales of feuding siblings, tragic deaths, and the impact of Islamic on his 'tribe' and their relationship to their community. The voice of the storyteller is delicately balanced – the voice is certainly that of a grown man, but he recounts to us his impressions of events he witnessed as a child. This retrospective style allows Ahmad to dive deep into nostalgic and poetic territory whilst still maintaining the naïve point of view of his younger self. The story flows between many different memories, jumping around in time, but all circling around the gravitational centre of an ageing, fading Yocheved.
It is intriguing to think about the many transformations that this story has gone through to land with us here in Melbourne. It has been adapted from memory to novel to performance; the text is performed by an actor, Hazem Shammas, transforming the story yet again; and the production has toured far from the western suburbs about which it was written. The spoken word, although front and centre, is transformed also – Shammas uses a microphone throughout, and his words are sometimes layered with vocal effects, sometimes with atmospheric sound layers, and constantly accompanied by Sherrard on the cello. For all this transformation, the story was still potent, which speaks to the strength of the team of artists, and particularly to the strength of Ahmad’s text. But at times I wished that even the few ornaments of sound that had been added would fall away, and that our small audience would be addressed without the sound effects, without the microphone; just a story told by one person to a few others. The text, the performance and the cello were strong; they would’ve been enough on their own.
The Tribe has finished its short season in Newport, but don’t be too surprised if you see this touring wonder popping up in a town near you before too long. Get along if you have the chance – it is a rare gem and a delight to behold.
Thursday 30 - April 1
Adapted by Michael Mohammed Ahmad and Janice Muller.
Based on the novel by Michael Mohammed Ahmad.
Director: Janice Muller
Performer: Hazem Shammas
Composer and Performer: Oonagh Sherrard
Production Manager: Frank Mainoo
Producer: Urban Theatre Projects