Review: Reclamation


By Andra Jenkin

Date / Venue: October 1st, 2019 - Basement Theatre, Auckland

The cast of Elyssia Wilson Heti’s Reclamation are all brown women. Vaimalia Carolyn Urale Baker, Falencie Filipo, Ria Hiroki and Elyssia herself.

Those waiting to get in are mainly women, which is what I’d expect for an audience going to a play that explores the experience of womxn, femmes and non-binary people, brown women, female desire and pleasure.

We are diverse, in size, shape, gender expression and ethnicity. I guess what that tells me is that we expect this performance to be inclusive, to see ourselves, and that for some of us, that’s rare.

The babble in the bar at the Basement Theatre is animated, with a range of voices from bass to soprano. As always seems to be the case in Auckland, I bump into someone I know, a beautiful Rarotongan woman named Lani with whom I share ideas about body positivity and representation. Our voices join the background sounds, inclusive already.

I enter the theatre. I was here not long ago for a comedy performance and the space had been completely transformed. There are choices to be made. Already I am confronted by the concept of imbalance, positionality and the ties that bind our ideas of fairness. It’s unique and already amazing, more promising than I could have hoped. A genuinely imaginative way of constructing the space that owes everything to set design and very little to budget.

I am fascinated by the women represented. Stoic and still, inviting the gaze, yet rejecting mundane mainstream expectations. I walk around the space as if in an art gallery. The show has not yet started and I am fully engaged and immersed.

Lani has told me of the excitement Elyssia felt at seeing a front row full of straight brown men at the last performance, the joy at reaching audiences thought unlikely to come. I notice more men seated now, they are there among the women and the audience covers a wide range of gay and straight, old and young, brown and white, men and women. We are all here, and I am not the only one sitting alone.

I have chosen to sit further back so as not to distract with my note taking, but the space is intimate and there are no bad seats, we are all able to see the bodies, and hear the jokes.

The lights fall, and so too do the voices, hushed and expectant. A voiceover, rich and poetic, starts. The actors are mirrored on each side of the space with audience members seated along all four walls. Pains have been taken to have the women on opposite sides of the space looking the same and there is a striking use of colour. White against brown skin not fetishized, but reminiscent of colonial garb, almost religious in tone.

The voiceover creates more distance than direct address, but provides narrative. There is a feeling of oppression shed, and joy. The music is upbeat, the audience moving in their seats, we can’t help but dance. There is direct address, and the performance draws our attention to body myths of fat never being fit, and shatters the concept that larger bodies are not sexualised. There is a declaration from the woman addressing us that she is trans. We are invited to leave if we don’t like that. No one does. In the politics of consent and power, she is preaching to the choir.

This is made clear by the audience reaction to statements. “Your hand to be held in public,” has the audience agreeing with enthusiasm, while another brings a collective sigh.

There are many comedic moments; the sermon most notably is very funny, light-hearted and subversive. But throughout the performance we are laughing or dancing. Other moments are deliberately shocking with nudity and explicit and graphic sexual scenes. There are connections made between sex and food, erotic, sensual and confronting and the collapsing of the ideas of public and private, with an open invitation to the intimate. One noteworthy scene brings new meaning to microphone techniques.

It is both liberating and inspiring, making me want to shed inhibitions like clothes.

At one stage it seems almost a one woman play with back up dancers somewhat under-utilised, and maybe just background eye-candy, but just as I think that, they come into the foreground as eye-candy. Come along and get an eyeful. Ultimately each is given their moment to shine.

To some extent there is song and a dance, stripping and skipping, but it’s more substantial that it appears on the surface. Much of the context is provided by the internal dialogue of each audience member. This is known by the performers and creator and used to good effect.

The audience is appreciative, hungry to be reflected, to be seen and to see themselves. The idea of perception subverts the male gaze and concepts such as stripping for voyeuristic pleasure. There are screens that both shield and show as well as being used for projection and as lenses so that the stage mimics that of a strip or sex show at times.

I thoroughly recommend this play to all audiences (over 18 I’m guessing), become an ally and come along. I guarantee you’ve not seen anything like it.

Elyssia serves intoxicating realness and in return, the audience gives Reclamation a standing O