debbie tucker green’s Random is a mammoth of a play for an actor to take on. It runs at under an hour, but asks a lot from its performer emotionally as she moves through the textually dense piece. Over the course of a day we follow a family – Mum, Dad, Brother and Sister – as they start their days, and then hear the news of a brutal, random knife attack on Brother.
Here director Nescha Jelk, making here State Theatre Company debut, also rests a lot on performer Zindzi Okenyo’s shoulders. In the first half of the play, Jelk places Okenyo in almost utter silence. Compounded by Ben Flett’s lighting that keeps Okenyo only lit from the waist up, Jelk is asking a lot of her audience, too, to train in and engage with the language of green’s text.
But lean in we do. green’s text brings a crammed, rhythmic poetry to everyday speech. This rhythm is intensified with the accents of the characters: the soft Jamaican lilt of Mum, the different tonal slangs of Brother and Sister. Some words are lost, particularly in the voice of Mum and at times it feels like the rhythm of the piece is more important to Jelk than the specific words.
In the first half, Okenyo fells most at home in the body of Sister – closest physically, but also the character she goes on to spend the most time in. Jelk gives Okenyo a breath between each character; transitions at first seem to be made too slowly, disrupting green’s internal rhythms. Lit by projections of blurred, muted colours as well as the rig, occasionally, too, transitions in the projection screens take away from the pace of green’s text. As the play develops, though, Jelk and Okenyo find the rhythms that speak through and they take over the performance.
As the play progresses into the second half and the family learn about what has happened to Brother, Okenyo’s body seems to hollow out. Her face becomes harrowed, her stomach falls back in on itself, her eyes red as they retreat back into their cavities. As her characters become destroyed emotionally, you can see a physical toll happening on their persons. Andrew Howard’s sound begins to grow in the background, a low and uncomfortable rumble.
For the first time, we start to see a bigger world, Flett’s lighting slowly coming up on Geoff Cobham and Jelk’s realistic mess of the teenage boy’s bedroom. Stepping out of the half dark, Okenyo is swallowed into the space. Sister puts on Brother’s jumper: it seems to consume her utterly. Sister trying to crawl in tighter and smaller, to disappear into her Brother’s space. Okenyo emotionally collapses. In this collapse, Okenyo draws the audience in closer: she is forming a black hole and we are all being pulled towards its centre. It is a stunning performance.
Powerful and speaking deeply about violence, Random is the most mature piece in this year’s Come Out Festival. green’s text is humorous, but ultimately takes emotional swings at the audience while asking them to engage deeply. Under Okenyo’s performance, I think the students that attend will be in safe hands.
State Theatre Company of South Australia in association with Come Out Festival presents Random by debbie tucker green. Directed by Nescha Jelk, design by Jelk and Geoff Cobham, lighting design by Ben Flett, sound design by Andrew Howard. With Zindzi Okenyo. At the Space Theatre until June 1. Then Goolwa, Renmark, Mt Gambier, Port Pirie, Port Augusta, Whyalla, and Port Lincoln. More information and tickets.
Disclosure: I produced the Nescha Jelk directed Sepia in 2012. Andrew Howard is of no relation.