At Queensland Theatre, Hannah Belanszky’s play don’t ask what the bird look like explores the cost of hiding from past traumas. By Yen-Rong Wong.

Queensland Theatre’s don’t ask what the bird look like

Three performers on stage. One sits at a table in the centre, while the others stand on either side of the stage, faced away from each other.
Shakira Clanto, Matilda Brown and Michael Tuahine in don’t ask what the bird look like.
Credit: Brett Boardman

Sometimes we keep secrets out of necessity, to protect others. Sometimes it’s because the pain of confronting the past is too much to bear. Written by Yuwaalaraay woman Hannah Belanszky, don’t ask what the bird look like is an exploration of the sometimes devastating effects of hiding the past.

Co-directed by Queensland Theatre’s artistic Elder Aunty Roxanne McDonald and artistic director Lee Lewis, this production delves into issues of family, connection, identity, loss and trauma, with a focus on First Nations experiences.

After her mother’s death, Joan (Dharawal woman Matilda Brown) travels from the city to spend a long weekend with her father, Mick (Gungalu man Michael Tuahine, who also has Māori heritage). Mick left when Joan was young, leaving her with memories of Scrabble games and red cordial-induced sugar highs, but not much else. Joan wants to spend some time with her father learning about Country but is met immediately with a seemingly insurmountable resistance.

The sparse design reflects the town Joan finds herself in, a place where the post office seems to be the only hub and where the locals are incredulous at the idea of “milking an almond”. Chloe Greaves’ set is simple: the facade of a suburban house with a clothes line to the side and a patio at the front. Two overlapping logs downstage represent the river, a place Joan feels called towards, despite – or perhaps because of – its tragic significance to others.

The backdrop features painted brown curves on a beige background, simultaneously evoking the imagery of shifting sand dunes and rippling water. Sound design by THE SWEATS brings the outback to life, notably with the evocative buzzing of flies, but also through the river’s bubbling and the latent sounds of the bush.

As with many first meetings after a long estrangement, the tension between Joan (or Joanie, as her father calls her) and Mick is palpable. This is emphasised in Greaves’ costume design – Joan’s red dress stands out from the set, emphasising her status as an outsider. Some clever direction, combined with Brown’s and Tuahine’s impeccable timing, results in silences just long enough to be uncomfortable without veering into staged awkwardness. Joan’s desire to learn about Country contrasts with Mick’s often monosyllabic responses. Although his short replies and intense focus on work seem to be a cover for his reluctance to engage with his daughter, it is clear he loves her: he makes her a cup of tea and seems to be genuinely hurt when Joan doesn’t eat a ham sandwich he prepares for her.

David Walters’ lighting charts the end of each day and the beginning of the next. Joan heads to the river early in her visit, where she speaks out loud to Country – hesitant at first but growing more comfortable as time passes. She recalls moments where she didn’t feel “Aboriginal enough”, when she’d thought about not identifying as Blak because it would be easier than answering insulting questions about her Aboriginality. Even here, a gentle humour runs through her dialogue as she recounts a disastrous encounter with a bottle of fake tan that resulted in her waking up with “a different ethnicity”.

Joan’s problems with her identity are exacerbated by her father’s unwillingness to share anything substantial on an emotional level, but she manages to make the beginning of a connection with a game of Scrabble, using a board and dictionary she’d kept from her childhood. Mick softens slightly in this scene, the nostalgia revealing his fatherly affection for Joan while also bringing out his competitive side. Tuahine skilfully navigates these subtle changes without completely dropping his defences. It doesn’t take much for Mick to once again withdraw, bringing back an undercurrent of unease.

Mick’s taciturnity is further highlighted when Pattie (Shakira Clanton), his partner of sorts, swings by for a visit, chattering for an almost absurd amount of time before noticing Joan sitting on the patio. Clanton, a Wongatha, Yamatji, Noongar and Gija yorga (woman) with African–American and Native American ancestry, shows off her comedic prowess here, cutting through the tension in the air but stopping short of pushing her character into caricature. She uses physical comedy to brilliant effect, with an eye-roll or shake of her head communicating more than any words.

Pattie is Mick’s foil; where he is quiet and brooding, she is loud and prone to using expletives. She is confident in her identity and immediately recognises Joan’s need for guidance. Despite Mick’s protestations and her own anxieties, she accompanies Joan to the river to fish for booglies (yabbies) and attempts to explain Mick’s actions – or lack thereof – to Joan. In doing so, she reveals some truths about the traumas that run through First Nations experiences.

Even though Mick’s grandmother could speak Language fluently, she avoided doing so out of self-preservation. This meant she didn’t teach it to her children either, a secret kept from future generations as a result of colonial oppression and the instinct to survive at all costs. Humour is shown to be a defensive survival mechanism, and the contrasts between Pattie and Mick demonstrate the differing ways in which people can respond to the same devastating event.

What happened to this family is kept from the audience until the play’s climax. It’s foreshadowed by a three-note motif that Joan hears whenever she is near the river. The significance of this motif is revealed late in the play but its presence throughout the production is a reminder that even though the past might be denied or repressed, it can still continue to have detrimental effects on others. The production builds to a heart-wrenching climax, in which Belanszky’s pacing and Tuahine’s and Clanton’s performances reveal, achingly, what can happen when secrets are left to fester and how trauma can be unintentionally passed on to another generation.

don’t ask what the bird look like ends on a gentle, if unresolved, note. This itself is a central part of the play’s message – as Belanszky writes in the program, “A journey towards healing and connection can’t be done in isolation, but people and places have complex histories that can be hard to navigate.” Much like these stories in real life, the play doesn’t have a tidy resolution. We are left to wonder “what if?” – whether it be for better or for worse. 

don’t ask what the bird look like plays at the Bille Brown Theatre, Brisbane, until September 9.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on September 2, 2023 as "Secret identity".

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