Theatre

The socially engaged theatre work Truth to Power Café gives poignant political expression to lived experiences. By Ben Brooker.

Truth to Power Café

A live performance of activist Jeremy Goldstein’s Truth to Power Café.
Credit: Kate Holmes

Noam Chomsky once observed that there is no point speaking truth to power because power already knows the truth and is busy concealing it; it’s the oppressed, not the oppressors, who need to hear it. London Artists Projects’ Truth to Power Café – a socially engaged theatre work combining memoir, poetry and film – is as fierce a test as any of Chomsky’s critique. Each production – the one I saw in Adelaide was the show’s 40th performance – features a new group of community participants who are tasked with responding to a simple but charged provocation: “Who has power over you and what do you want to say to them?”

Directed by Jen Heyes, the show is the creation of British theatre producer and activist Jeremy Goldstein. It was presented live at the Adelaide Festival Centre for a single night on September 17, before heading to digital productions based in Sydney and Melbourne.

The space is hung with trade union-style banners that call back to campaigns of the past: justice for AIDS victims, aid for anti-fascist forces in Bosnia. One reads “equal representation or death”. Another, perhaps a relic of the fight for same-sex marriage, simply “love”. Goldstein features prominently, especially in a lengthy video prologue – projected onto a large screen that overhangs the mostly bare stage – that grounds the work in the psychosocial as much as the political.

We learn through a combination of spoken word poetry and monologue that his father was Mick Goldstein, a member of the so-called Hackney Gang of artists that included actor Henry Woolf, the group’s sole survivor who, at 91, contributes poetry to the show, and playwright Harold Pinter. The video includes footage of Pinter railing against “American barbarism” in a 2003 speech against the Iraq war.

To say that Goldstein and his father had a complicated relationship would be an understatement. Driven apart by irreconcilable differences, the two were estranged by the time Mick was diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2012. Goldstein speaks of his struggles with self-loathing and substance abuse, and a crushing diagnosis of AIDS in the late 1990s by which time, Goldstein says heartbreakingly, “I had been erased by my own father.” There was no rapprochement before Mick’s death and it’s hard not to see the show as an elaborate reckoning with, and perhaps catharsis of, Goldstein’s feelings of parental abandonment.

In this process of what Goldstein has called “claiming agency over yourself” is, if not exactly a reclamation of power, then at least a rejection of it: a pressing back against the forces that demoralise and diminish us.

Although it can feel like it at times, Truth to Power Café is not merely a record of one man’s personal demons. The nine community participants in Adelaide each give poignant expression to the political dimensions of their lived experiences, in their own highly divergent ways. Introduced by Goldstein via live stream from Sydney – a compromise, like the introductory video, necessitated by Covid-19 travel restrictions – the participants have 500 words in which to speak to someone who holds power over them. Some use direct address to rebuke a specific, absent recipient. Others take the opportunity to make soapbox-style speeches, denouncing oppressive ideologies – racism and ableism, climate inaction and male supremacy – rather than individuals.

Kyron Weetra, who has Narrungan ancestry, gives an impassioned, spoken word takedown of colonialism, the “gaping wound” at the heart of Australian national identity. Without suturing it, he tells us, we can never heal as a nation. Kathryn Hall, who has had cerebral palsy since birth, describes her struggles with persistent low energy and the National Disability Insurance Scheme – having to explain her whole life in two hours, having to make sense of documents written in language impenetrable to people with cognitive impairment – with a surprising amount of levity. Oshanna Alexander, a single mother, confronts the systems that have repeatedly failed her. “Why am I still pleading my case?” she asks after revealing harrowing details of her experiences of intimate partner violence. It feels like she’s addressing everyone present, compelling us to not only bear witness but to reflect on our own complicity. Finally she asks what she has to do to be seen in all her complexity, a question that could apply with equal trenchancy to any one of these speakers.

Some of the responses are stranger and more slippery. There’s Samuel Lau, “brought up in the church on borrowed beliefs”, who addresses both his parents and God in paradoxical terms that speak to some powerful but ultimately unnamed source of unease and confusion. Then there’s Dan Monceaux, an aspiring musician and documentary-maker, who rails against the “high-tech prison state” he has found himself in during the past few years. I can’t tell if his first-person monologue, full of paranoid-sounding assertions, is meant to be interpreted literally or as metaphor, an expansive warning about the erosion of privacy under what Shoshana Zuboff has dubbed “surveillance capitalism”.

Perhaps the most affecting participants are the youngest. Anjali Beames and Tom Webster, part of the class action known as the Sharma “duty of care” case – or “eight kids and a nun taking the Environment minister to court”, as Webster jokes – shame our leaders for their disastrous recalcitrance on climate. “I tell those in power,” says Beames, “that they will be held accountable.”

Nicky Tsz Tung Li, who becomes something of a crowd favourite, describes herself as a “Hong Kong-born bisexual with bipolar, on a temporary visa” and talks about intersectionality – only to repudiate such labels altogether. “Stop expecting,” she exhorts us over and over again, demanding we try harder to transcend the assumptions with which we dehumanise each other.

I had hoped the participants, who gather on stools placed around the stage once they’ve spoken, would be given the opportunity to mingle and spark off each other, to build a sense of solidarity around their individual trials. The idea of a cafe, after all, suggests a space of exchange, something only gestured at by the show’s finale in which the group, in unison with Goldstein, chants the Hackney Gang motto “blow your trumpets angels”.

Their act of resistance here – courageously giving voice to their respective truths with verve, eloquence and, yes, rage – is no small thing. Perhaps the powerful, as Chomsky suggested, stand to lose nothing in hearing these stories. But we can only be increased by them: reason enough, surely, for the oppressors of this world to fear the power inherent in their telling. 

A digital performance of Truth to Power Café is available on demand from Bunjil Place and Melbourne Fringe Festival, October 2-17.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 25, 2021 as "Nine lives".

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Ben Brooker is a writer, editor and theatre-maker.