‘We all have our demons’. There’s never been a more true truism spoken. But what of those demons that plague whole communities, affect entire nations?
In his new play The Demon, co-created alongside intercultural theatre director Rachael Swain and choreographer of filmic and surrealist dance theatre Gavin Webber, author and playwright Michael Mohammed Ahmad opens the lens wide to confront one such demon – one that has haunted Australia since white settlement: the demon of xenophobia.
‘I really believe xenophobia is the major issue of our society,’ Ahmad says. ‘It’s a recurring thing, it never goes away.’
Part of Sydney Opera House’s latest bi-annual season of UnWrapped, which platforms independent voices and contemporary Australian work, The Demon takes its audience on a neo-noir voyage into contemporary western Sydney and into the bond of two Bankstown-born and bred detectives: Arab Australian Jihad (played by Johnny Nasser) and his Aboriginal Muslim partner Matthew Muhammad (Kirk Page).
They are two men bound together as tight as brothers, but that bond will be tested as they investigate a crime involving a Chinese Australian gang who call themselves The Celestials, whose fearsome street fighter leader Wei (Yvonne Huang) leads the detectives from Western Sydney out west to Burrangong, site of the infamous anti-Chinese Lamming Flat Riots of 1861.
To solve the modern-day crime, these detectives must first confront the legacies of the past.
A play takes on new relevance
The Demon, Ahmad explained, weaves together the shared histories of oppression of three peoples: First Nations; Chinese-Australians, and Arab and Muslim Australians.
‘When we started out on this project, none of us could have predicted what was going to happen in the world,’ he said. ‘Who could have imagined the Christchurch massacre of Muslims peacefully conducting their Friday prayers? Or the rise of COVID-19 and its fuelling of anti-Asian violence? Or the murder of George Floyd in America and the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and the attention that brought to the treatment of Indigenous people here?
‘I’m quite a spiritual person and I believe that the universe slowed down a little for our show to help us understand more of the history of xenophobia in Australia.’
The Demon has been developed over the better part of a decade, years in which Ahmad has learned a lot about himself and built a career as an author and founder of western Sydney’s Sweatshop Literary Movement.
‘When Rachael Swain approached me in 2012, I was still a kid in a lot of ways. It was before I had achieved anything, really,’ Ahmad said. ‘I was just a young writer from western Sydney with potential. It was before my first novels were published (2015’s award-winning The Tribe and The Lebs, 2018). That’s one of the things that makes it so special for me: I’ve grown up as an artist and writer alongside the piece.’
His experience as a novelist has nourished his playwrighting, Ahmad said. ‘One of the things fiction writers do is spend hundreds of hours thinking about the psychology of their characters. We’re used to going deep. And I always write with one goal in mind: to make an original contribution to the world through characters saying things that haven’t been said before.
‘It’s a ridiculous goal to set yourself!’ he laughed. ‘And I know I don’t always get there, but that’s what I set out to do every time.’
The Demon’s blending of filmic elements with physical and text-based theatre is something new in work from western Sydney, Ahmad said.
‘Theatre often has a magic realist element to it but traditionally a lot of work from western Sydney has more of a social realist, documentary feel. This is a piece of theatre that brings all that together.’
Having The Demon play at the Sydney Opera House is an important bridge between communities, Ahmad added.
‘We’re living in a time when we have been divided in so many ways and so bringing people together is incredibly important and a play about our shared history is very necessary right now. We have to find a way to come together and talk about the hard stuff, about the settlement of Australia and the Opera House is a perfect place to do that. It’s an icon for Australian people wherever they live.’
The Demon is co-commissioned by OzAsia Festival and the Sydney Opera House and enabled for the Opera House by New Work Now founding supporter Prof Ross Steele AM.
Check out the full line-up for the UnWrapped October – November series here.