The Gods of Strangers opens with an assault of arm waving, grappa and shouts of ‘ma che fa?’. The air is filled with the spirit, and the yelling, of Australian yiayias and nonnas, authentically embodied by Dina Panozzo and Deborah Galanos.
Emotive exclamations in Latin-derived language, prayer hands gesturing above a shaking head; these are behaviours now familiar to modern-day Adelaidians; but for some, seeing this energy onstage is long-awaited representation. Panozzo and Galanos celebrate South Australian-Greek/Italian lineage, with the vivacity and aggressive warmth that the cultures are known for in contrast with their stiff-upper-lip counterparts; the emotionless and contained British descendants.
Elizabeth Hay captures the awkward, stiff and reserved Australian, and the dissonance between that and the lively, emotive Italian. She is offended and intimidated, but mostly enamoured by the culture. In the audience, while the descendants of Panozzo’s brazen and bodacious character Assunta laughed and celebrated both her and their own nonnas; myself and perhaps other British descendants recognised ourselves in the bumbling Hay as her character tries to navigate friendships with such strong, open and aggressively loving women, who see her as cold and sad.
Recent Flinders Drama Centre graduate and Greek immigrant Phillipos Ziakas, represented second generation immigrants; through the character of Yianni, the 20-year-old son of Galanos’ Vasiliki. Ziakas explores what it means to reconcile the pressure of hard-working immigrant parents and the opportunities made available by their parents’ hard work. Offspring feels controlled by mother, mother perceives ungratefulness. Nods among the young and old recognise this tension as one which still resides between the immigrant dream of providing a better life, and the next generation’s dreams that deviate from parents’ plans.
Eugenia Fragos’ Ana, a Cypriot woman who has just arrived in Port Pirie after a long journey from the small Greek island of Kastellorizo, steps off the train and captures the overwhelming feeling of finding oneself in a foreign land; alienated by a foreign culture, and isolated by a foreign language. A white Australian offensively speaks to her like she’s a child, in a way that is sadly reminiscent of the interactions between white Australians of today, and immigrants from Asia, Africa or the Middle East. Carapetis’ play teaches us empathy; and shows us the way our poor behaviour doesn’t change; but the recipient of our behaviour does, in trends, over time. To a millennial, the idea of racism towards Greeks and Italians seems alien; but to plenty of Adelaidian nonni, the wounds would be all too fresh.
The story is told through a combination of Greek, Italian and English. The audience experience of having to dart eyes between the live action and the English subtitles screened on the side, enacts the befuddling language learning experience of the immigrant; of course to a much, much lesser degree. The old Italian and Greek speakers in the audience can sit back and enjoy their stories, in their languages; and chuckle at some of the lines left untranslated for the non-bilingual (which include words such as those starting with ‘p’ and ending in ‘utana’).
The show’s closing monologue pays homage to the great-grandmothers of today’s young South Australian Greek and Italian descendants. These endlessly strong women, who knew their power and didn’t take any man’s cazzete, while they worked themselves to the bone maintaining their homes, running their businesses and raising their children; did so because they dreamt of a 2018 where their great-granddaughters would be given the opportunities to dream, to choose, to live. Unafraid, and un-dominated by men. The eyes of Panozzo, Galanos and Fragos sparkled with tears as they lived their dreams onstage, and fulfilled their ancestors’ dreams by doing so. As the lights went down, the audience erupted with celebration and understanding.
The Gods of Strangers played at the Dunstan Playhouse until the 2nd of December.