At its heart, Meyne Wyatt’s City of Gold is about a family denied the right to grieve. By Ruby Hamad.

City of Gold

Meyne Wyatt, Mathew Cooper and Simone Detourbet in City of Gold.
Meyne Wyatt, Mathew Cooper and Simone Detourbet in City of Gold.
Credit: Joseph Mayers

It would be easy to label actor and debut playwright Meyne Wyatt’s City of Gold – now in a new production for Sydney Theatre Company – as a play about racism and police brutality. It certainly covers those issues, but this categorisation also demonstrates part of the problem Wyatt tackles: the inescapability of stereotyping that dehumanises even when packaged as a desire to be “educated” about racism.

Wyatt plays Breythe Black, a young, handsome “Indigenous actor” – his quotation marks – who is on the cusp of significant fame. We meet him, spear in hand, in the middle of shooting a tacky Australia Day lamb commercial that he clearly finds degrading. When he receives word his sick father has died back in Kalgoorlie, he quits and returns to the City of Gold.

Strip it back and this story is about losing a loved one before you could show them what they meant to you – and of being denied the right to grieve.

Prodigal son Breythe is visibly out of place in rural Western Australia, as shown by his obnoxiously spotless white Nike sneakers. They impress his devoted cousin Cliffhanger (Ian Michael) but older brother Mateo (Mathew Cooper) can’t wait to tell Breythe they will soon be covered in the red Kalgoorlie dust that attaches itself to everything.

Even in its grief the family cannot escape the whiteness that dominates the social landscape. There is no respite from the hostility of the white townsfolk or the threat of brutality from local police. This Black family isn’t permitted to grieve a fallen member in peace and dignity; as with every other part of their lives, the rituals of death are scarred by the racial prejudices of non-Indigenous Australia.

From the moment Breythe returns home a time bomb is ticking. The only question is, for whom? In the meantime, there are family matters to attend to. With Breythe readjusting after living on the east coast for so long and the moody Mateo consumed by his own repressed resentment, it is left to their sister, the peace-keeping Carina (Simone Detourbet), to take on the practicalities of the funeral arrangements, hold the encroaching whites at bay and prevent the brothers from taking their pain out on each other.

Wyatt has an assured stage presence and confidently leads a small cast, some making their Sydney Theatre Company debut. Designer Tyler Hill’s background in fine art and architecture is apparent in his stark but functional set: the front verandah of a typical outback home is set at a diagonal to allow full view of the rows of corridors that make up the house, a design that is cleverly used by lighting designer Verity Hampson to direct our attention where it needs to be at pivotal moments.

Shari Sebbens, who played Carina in the play’s original run, switches to directing duties for this production and opts for understatement. There are some stumbles here and there – I would have liked, for instance, to learn more about the Black siblings’ mother, who is referenced but absent from the action – but you never know when you’ll next come face-to-face with a priceless nugget. Trevor Ryan as Breythe’s recently deceased father, for example, is granted exponential resonance by the simple costume design – even in the flashback sequences, when he is teaching his young sons and Cliffhanger to hunt kangaroo, he always wears his burial suit. Is this history as it happened or as Breythe remembers it?

Wyatt’s witty script contains some knockout lines and he delivers the second act opening monologue flawlessly. Commanding the stage from the roof of the house, he unfalteringly switches from humour to raw anger to grief to sarcasm and back again. Hurling barbs at performative progressives who “can’t be seen to be racist” but who harbour the same attitudes as the explicit racists he knew growing up, Wyatt has the audience enthralled. His targets include the respectability politics of nice-guy celebrities such as Dwayne Johnson and the infamous Will Smith slapping incident. “Never trade your authenticity for acceptance,” he demands, setting the tone for a stellar second act.

City of Gold premiered at the Griffin Theatre Company in 2019, a time when Wyatt was grieving the father he had lost four years earlier and was deeply dissatisfied with his own acting career. It was the year before the murder of George Floyd reignited the Black Lives Matter protests on a global scale. Wyatt, who is Wongutha-Yamatji, was shaken by the killing of a 14-year-old relative in his hometown of Kalgoorlie and then again by the death of Warlpiri teenager Kumanjayi Walker, who was shot by a white police officer. He dedicated the opening night’s performance at Griffin to Walker.

In 2022, the play’s subject matter is only becoming more relevant. Yet even as it hurtles towards its inevitably brutal end, there is space in the play to experience the love of kin and community at the heart of this tale about a family who are never permitted to simply sit with their pain. “I don’t regret not being here when Dad died,” Breythe says. “I regret not treating him better when he was alive.”

These emotions are what the siblings would be processing if it were not for the racism that pursues them into even these most private moments. This is searingly highlighted in an exchange between Breythe and Mateo, the latter serving as a mouthpiece for the respectability politics that Breythe so abhors. Mateo has no patience for the Black Lives Matter protests led by internet activists who, he says, know little of the realities of life in their town, and he provokes his brother by suggesting that the negative image held by white folks is at least partly the result of Black people “acting badly”.

As the loose cannon Mateo, Cooper at times threatens to steal the show. His controlled urgency exhibits flashes of the dignified rage that simmers under Mateo’s aloof exterior and that Mateo tries so valiantly, if misguidedly, to suppress. “Either bury it or live with it,” he scoffs at Breythe. But his own anger and grief can be neither lived with nor buried: it demands to be met head on.

Cooper delivers City of Gold’s most subtly wrenching line. After one of their tense interactions, Breythe – who has been having recurring dreams about his father ever since he arrived home – storms off to bed. “Say hi to Dad for me,” Mateo tells him, but Breythe is already gone. There is so much loss, guilt and longing behind those six words that no response could possibly suffice. And none is given. 

City of Gold is playing at the Wharf 1 Theatre, Sydney, until June 11.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 21, 2022 as "Nuggets of pain".

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Ruby Hamad is a writer and cultural critic.

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