Award-winning actor and director Shari Sebbens hopes her new show The Whole Table will encourage more people to listen and learn from indigenous voices.
Shari Sebbens remembers seeing all the black tiles flood social media last year and wondering what those people posting would do next to support the fight against systemic racism.
As the Black Lives Matter protests in the US inspired COVID-restricted marches in Australia, campaigning against the scourge of black deaths in custody, Sebbens and her friends in the arts community pondered how they could keep the conversation going.
The Jabirr Jabirr and Bardi award-winning actor and director, who stole Australia’s heart with her debut performance in The Sapphires, back in 2012, banded together with respected peers, including Wesley Enoch, Nakkiah Lui and Rhoda Roberts, to create a new NITV panel show, The Whole Table.
The three hour-long episodes, staged in conjunction with the Sydney Theatre Company, will also feature guests including prominent writer, actor and musician Briggs, Kiwi film director Taika Waititi and the unstoppable actor, author and filmmaker Miranda Tapsell.
Focusing on the past, present and future of indigenous voices in the arts, The Whole Table will explore the issues faced by indigenous creatives, which echo the lived experience of First Nations and people of colour in Australia.
Sebbens appreciates the NITV program is for a “niche audience” but hopes the pedigree of its panel and guests will draw in viewers who want to listen and learn more from indigenous voices.
“There’s a double-edged sword,” she tells The BINGE Guide.
“Being born black in this country is a political statement, our very existence is resistance. You have artists who want to tell stories, who want to speak out on these issues and then are told
to ‘shut up and sing, shut up and dance, shut up and act.’”
She laughs when it’s suggested perhaps The Whole Table could have been titled ‘Shut Up And Listen,’ joking that motto could be an ancient Aboriginal proverb which has yet to catch on in Australia.
But Sebbens suggests indigenous stories are rising to the fore in Australian film, television and music, as the arts industry adopts a more proactive role in elevating new voices.
The wildly acclaimed Mystery Road, Lui’s hit stage show Black Is The New White, Tapsell’s film Top End Wedding and a raft of indigenous singers and songwriters including Thelma Plum, Baker Boy and Miiesha have proven widely popular.
She appreciates there has been a rise in productions which reflect inclusivity and diversity within the arts community – citing her appointment as the Sydney Theatre Company’s current Richard Wherrett fellow – but points out “black and brown” creatives have to constantly push to maintain their presence on our screens and stages.
“I think this is about the gatekeepers, who are in control of the arts companies, whether it’s theatre companies, record labels or management, t and who they are letting in,” she says.
“The great thing now is how incredible it is to see the rise of First Nations and people of colour in the arts but the big question is how do we maintain it. It’s the age-old adage – it’s not a moment, it’s a movement.”
The movement has maintained its momentum throughout the year, even as Australians were isolated in their homes, due to pandemic restrictions.
Actor Meyne Wyatt’s powerful monologue, from his play City of Gold, which closed an episode of ABC’s Q + A last June generated tens of thousands of views after the show.
Musician Ziggy Ramo called out the show’s producers when he was invited onto a panel in August but was told he could not perform his preferred song April 25th; provoking a debate about censorship and whether his inclusion on the panel was a performative gesture.
Instead, he closed out the show with an emotional performance of his song, Stand For Something.
Sebbens wants those powerful moments – whether on television or the theatre stage – to have a lasting effect.
“I think about the transient nature of theatre, where we all sit in the same room and experience something wonderful and universal, and then you leave and take it away in the back part of your mind to not think about again,” she says.
“If about 10 per cent of the audience identifies as people of colour, there’s an ever-present question of ‘Who am I doing this for?’
“It’s what the predominantly white audience does after, how they reflect on the stories they have seen on stages and screens and hear in music, and how they take those lessons with them,” she explains.
While the pandemic stalled her debut as a director of her good friend Deborah Mailman in the STC production of Wesley Enoch’s powerful contemporary indigenous work The 7 Stages Of Grieving, Sebbens is gratefully enjoying one of the busiest periods of her career.
As well as developing new theatre works, she will take part in the first Netflix talent hub to develop 10 indigenous-led productions in February.
“I’m working on expanding my skill set to screen directing and writing and there are things in the pipeline,” she teases.
“There’s a bunch of incredible black creative teams involved in the indigenous talent hub in February which was the intelligent and logical next step for Netflix in Australia.”
* The Whole Table, 8.30pm Wednesday, January 20 on NITV and SBS On Demand
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