Review: Honouring Those Who Left Us Too Soon

The Honouring is a heartbreaking journey that examines the intergenerational pain and trauma that First Nations communities suffer, writes Davey Thompson. Blak Critics is a YIRRAMBOI initiative giving voice to First Nations writers and critics.

Working in the industry for a number of years, Jack Sheppard, a Kurtjar man from far north Queensland, has been weaving his way skilfully between different genres of art. His latest solo work, The Honouring, blends theatre, dance and puppetry, taking the audience on a heartbreaking journey that examines up close the intergenerational pain and trauma that First Nations communities suffer, and the painfully high rates of suicide that follow from that.

With Sheppard’s remarkable artistic talent and drive on full display, The Honouring, presented as part of this year’s YIRRAMBOI Festival of First Nations art and culture, isn’t your average theatre work. It’s what a lot of the audience were calling a ‘conversation starter’ on opening night. It’s also a well-overdue invitation to our communities to slow down and reflect on an epidemic that we unintentionally sweep under the rug too often.

In Australia, our rates of suicide are alarmingly high – but when you separate the Indigenous statistics from the mainstream it’s even more heartbreaking. Indigenous youth suicide has been reported as six times higher than the national average, which is catastrophic when you realise that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people make up roughly three per cent of the total population.

Around long enough to make a bit of a name for himself, the buzz surrounding Sheppard was evident as we filed in. That excitement was quickly undercut by the sight of a figure, dressed in a black hoodie, hanging from the rafters. Clearly visible before the show began, in this moment Sheppard reminds us that suicide can sneak up on anyone. As confronting and uneasy as it made the audience feel, we had to accept that this is only the beginning of the story.

The moment the lights began to fade, a silence fell upon the audience. Used to straggling chatter, it was beautiful to witness for a regular theatregoer like me, and a painful reminder of the effects of suicide. Straight off the bat the tone was set. This wasn’t going to be the happiest of conversations, but it’s one that we really need to have.

As Sheppard entered the space, he noticed the figure hanging, quickly drawing attention to it for anyone who missed it. For the next 50 minutes, he guides us through the lowest, hardest depths of human emotion in tandem with the strength and pride he has for his culture. One moment we’d experience stillness and calm, before darkness would consume the artist and the set. Light-hearted and gentle movements allowed the audience to breathe, before these were undercut with angry, violent gestures that at times imitated self-harm.

The Honouring makes use of both shadow and hand puppets to capture the adult imagination, embodying the different spirits and memories that Sheppard carries with him. His shadow cast on the backdrop is gargantuan in size in comparison, reflecting how large these demons that haunt people can grow.

Incredibly choreographed, seemingly pushing the artist and the audience to our limits, a very special mention needs to be said for Jack’s incredible portrayal of a deep, yet platonic love between men. It’s only a small element of the show, yet still very important. Men often feel that they can’t be vulnerable, but Sheppard completely undercuts that and shows us that we need to open up and make ourselves vulnerable in order to heal.

Please do yourself a favour and get a ticket to see The Honouring. It’s not a light-hearted show where you’ll laugh so hard you cry, but it is one that hopefully slows you down long enough to contribute to this long overdue conversation our country needs to have.

The Honouring premiered at La Mama Courthouse as part of YIRRAMBOI Festival 2019. The Honouring is supported by the City of Melbourne through YIRRAMBOI Festival and the Arts Grants Program. Supported by the Victorian Government through Creative Victoria, The Honouring was developed as a KIN Commission for presentation at YIRRAMBOI 2019. Development of The Honouring has been supported by Lemony S Puppet Theatre and La Mama Theatre through the Indigenous Puppet Artist Fund of the Melbourne International Puppet Festival.