“We have to share this, not only for our own people, but for the nation. It’s a universal story, it’s about connection and identity.”
Bani is today based in Cairns but often returns to the Torres Strait. The erosion of its Indigenous languages and cultural practices began with the arrival of Christian missionaries in 1871. Over time, Mabuiag families left for work opportunities 100 kilometres south on Thursday Island.
In the play, Bani cracks jokes with his grandmother, Petharie, in his first language, the creole tongue of Yumpla Tok – a mix of standard Australian English and a regional dialect of the western islands language of Kalaw Laga Ya.
Bani also busts traditional moves with two of his five brothers: Conwell, cultural holder of Wagadagam dances, and Richard. Meanwhile, 16-year-old Dmitri – the eldest son of Bani’s five children and the designated 10th chief of the Wagadagam tribe – frequently zones out on his iPhone.
In 1888, a Cambridge University anthropologist called Alfred Cort Haddon travelled to the Torres Strait and produced volumes of reports describing local customs, including those of the Wagadagam tribe such as their traditional dress adorned with patrilineal symbols.
We have to share this, not only for our own people, but for the nation
Jimi Bani, writer and actor
In one satirical scene in the play, Bani plays a breakdancing version of Haddon in Cambridge-style academic robes while his own family waves British flags and cheers.
Bani has much more in common, he says, with the late Eddie Mabo, whom he played in a 2012 telemovie opposite Deborah Mailman. Playing Mabo – whose 1992 High Court land rights victory overturned the legal doctrine of terra nullius – was an honour, he says, and gave him a profile that meant his people began listening to him.
A “shy young fellow” growing up, acting allowed him to “jump into a character’s shoes and express myself”. He says in the play: “Our culture doesn’t live inside books or a museum … culture lives in language. Culture lives in song. Culture lives in dancing. Life without culture, is life without life.”
But it is the role of playing himself on stage that has most strengthened his confidence for his upcoming role of ninth chief of the Wagadagam tribe.
Do the young people listen to what is important? “Yes, absolutely,” he says. “They come up to me now and ask, ‘My family is from this area; who do I go and see?’. I tell them, ‘You’re from this land; you’re from this tribe’.
“If they’re from Wagadagam, I say, ‘You come and see me, I’ll tell you the stories. You can come hang around with Dmitri and, when we do, we’ll perform a dance’.
“It gives them the confidence to go and search and say, ‘This is mine. I have the right. This identity belongs to me’.”
Bani’s duties after My Name is Jimi finishes its Melbourne Festival run will soon include organising Dmitri’s manhood initiation ceremony on Mabuiag, in which his uncles ceremonially shave him while imparting knowledge.
My Name Is Jimi is at Arts Centre Melbourne, October 4-7, as part of Melbourne International Arts Festival. The Age is a festival partner.