There are few people I’d prefer to spend an evening with than Jimi Bani: master raconteur, established actor, and soon to be the ninth Chief of the Wagadagam tribe. Which is lucky. Because My Name is Jimi lives and dies on his infectious, irrepressible charm.
Directed by Jason Klarwein, this is oral storytelling at its best, with dancing, riffs, puppetry and a good dose of audience interaction. And that’s not all. Bani, whose tribe is from Mabuiag island on the Torres Straits, also brings his family along for the ride: his mother Agnes and elderly grandmother Petharie, both resplendent in bright pink traditional garb, two brothers Conwell and Richard, and his 15-year-old son Dmitri.
It’s a bold move, and a risky one, but it works. Co-presented with Sydney festival, this Queensland theatre production takes a fun, fresh approach to the idea that family is everything – and watching four generations interact on the one stage, often in three languages, brings pathos and weight to a celebration of Torres Strait Islander culture, while also exposing its fault-lines and unique challenges.
The action starts, fittingly, with the laying down of a welcome mat. It’s a gesture of invitation; Bani has said viewers are basically walking into “our living room”. Sporting a suit and a big grin, he relays the good and the bad of his childhood, including dancing parties – cue a reenactment of a dodgy disco – and nights arguing under the lamppost.
If there is nostalgia, however, there is also anxiety over who will carry the culture, language and traditions into the future. For much of My Name is Jimi, which was co-written with Bani’s father Dimple before he passed away in 2015, a fire burns on stage. It represents words Bani’s grandfather once told him: “There is a fire, a bright flame that was lit in the past, it is still burning but the woods are burning out. My job is to put new woods in to keep this fire burning” – and now, Bani, too, sees it as his role to keep the flames alive.
Here, that takes the form of relaying fables, using clever puppetry, dioramas, a camera, and projections onto a giant screen. One – in which Bani tells the story of a haggard ogre who steals away children who cry at night, plucking out their eyeballs and skinning them alive – is genuinely frightening. In another more gentle tale a boy tries to cross the water to another island, only to panic and be helped by a friendly crocodile.
When the camera spans under the waves to reveals an entire world under the sea – including a moving shoal of glinting fish – it is truly magical.
Bani also doesn’t shy away from fraught post-colonial representations of the Torres Strait. This is a window not only into one family but also into a first nations culture that has a difficult history: Indigenous languages on Mabuiag Island, for one, were banned. But instead of lectures or reprimands, Bani uses lashings of humour – and a fair amount of tongue-in-cheek mockery – to expose the wounds of the past and explore the tests to come in the future.
This is all delivered in the form of vignettes: memorably, Bani impersonates a Cambridge anthropologist. In a glass box stand his specimens, wearing grass skirts. Soon, however, the professor has them stripping down to the dress of today – shorts, backpacks, and the most important of accessories: a handheld football and speakers wheeled in a pram.
When the professor makes a faux pas – declaring that Islanders use Myspace (Myspace? What decade is he in?) – his specimens, who are meant to be stock still and serious, giggle uncontrollably.
The smartphone, though, is a serious issue. As Bani tries to install the culture of his ancestors on his son, dimming the lights and hushing his voice in tones of awe and respect, Dmitri takes a call on stage, ignoring his father’s pleas to put down his phone. Humour turns to disappointment; Jimi, distressed, walks off stage and the show stops. It’s awkward, embarrassing, and all-too familiar: a parent feeling dismay and sorrow at the gulf between them and their children.
There are parts that work less well. A presentation of a family tree and a test of what the audience has learnt and remembered feels tired compared to the rest of the production. Then there’s the fact that none of the family members, bar Bani, are professional dramatists; Bani’s grandmother, in particular, seems shy on stage, speaking so quietly into the microphone that I could barely hear her.
Overall, though, this is a rare gem of a show and a gift to be granted insight into a different culture from a tribal chief. To polish up the production too much – to lose all those rough edges – would do it a disservice. That’s what makes My Name is Jimi stand apart: its humbleness and the sheer soul-stirring authenticity. It is a cry from the heart, brimming with familial love, laughter, and, at times, frustration, and the work is all the better for it.
• My Name is Jimi runs at Belvoir theatre until 21 January, as part of Sydney festival