Vertigo sat down with Almitra Mavalvala, performer and writer of the one-woman cabaret ‘BLACKLISTED’ that is showing as part of the Sydney Fringe Festival from the 5th to the 9th of September.
Directed by Jessica Fallico, the performance is an intimate, warm, and autobiographical tale of Almitra’s struggles with immigration and belonging. Sit, laugh, cry and share a cup of chai with Almitra as she brings humour (and song!) to a story that will make you question: what does home mean to you?
Photography by Bronte Skinner
Vertigo: How would you pitch ‘BLACKLISTED’ to UTS students?
Almitra: I came here as an international student. International students will probably relate much more than any other students. At the heart of this piece is borders, belongings and finding home in a foreign land. It's an immigration story. And it's a migrant story. It follows my journey; it's autobiographical.
It was my journey being a student and getting denied visa travel based on the assumption that I hold a Pakistani passport. So there's a lot of heavy themes. At its core, it is about the displacement of home. You leave your home, and you make all these sacrifices, and then you question whether it was worth it or not.
It's also funny. It's fun. It's got a lot of heart, a lot of soul. There's a lot of different musical genres in it, like Eastern classical songs that I wrote for the show.
V: You've already had a fantastic run of the show at the Hayes Theatre. What has resonated most with audiences so far?
A: There were so many people who came and saw me after the show. Strangers who said that they felt seen. That's why I do theatre. All it comes down to is that one person that it made a difference to.
At the end of the day, it is a gruelling process. It absolutely takes everything you've got. And you really, really have to want it to be in this industry. So, I guess I powered through!
This story is an important one to tell. I have to remember that. Yes, it is my life that is on stage. But it is also many other people's stories. I'm just one in so many of these cases. Even though I talk about very specific things in the show, they are still universally relevant.
V: I think home is such a universally relevant theme. What does home mean to you?
A: That's the question I ask in my show. I ask this question a lot when I have conversations with people, I'm like, what is home to you? Home, you know, it's my language. It's a phone call with my mom. I don't think belonging has anything to do with the place itself. It’s the people.
I had a friend from back home from Pakistan who recently visited me for 10 days from London recently. And I have never felt more at home in Australia than when he was here.
Immigrants come to foreign lands, sometimes without family. I don't have any family here. I came by myself. So it’s the found family that you kind of hold on to. There is still an element of loneliness, of course; it's just a different kind.
I sing a song called ‘Big Cities’ in the show. It encompasses all of that. You're just gonna have to come see it!
V: The show touches on broader themes of immigration, racial profiling and displacement. Did you purposefully try and challenge the racist narratives of Australian politics, or did it just happen organically?
A: I was challenging all of the immigration system. Not so much Australia, actually more Canada and America, which is where I have been rejected. Because of my lived experience, I knew that I was challenging racism, and racial profiling.
I faced it. The title song, ‘Blacklisted’ talks about that. I've been pulled aside ‘randomly’. I get pulled aside every time I go through customs. Really random of them… This is my reality. I'm not pulling it out of thin air; it's literally happened to me. It happened to my brother. It's autobiographical, right? I'm not speaking on anyone else's behalf but myself.
At the end of the show, I don't really end on a low note. I end on a very, very hopeful note. And because it’s autobiographical, the ending slightly shifts in each performance. Hopefully, it is happening in the now. You'll hear what has happened and where my journey is going.
Of course, I don't know where it's going! It's all up in the air.
V: Does it get draining to perform your own story constantly? What type of toll does it take on you?
A: It is draining, I'm not gonna lie. And no matter how many times you rehearse it, or practise it, or talk about it. It hits you differently every time. Because as an actor, I'm living my truth, right on stage every night. I have to create a character just so I can protect myself. And I do that. It's hard though, because you have to be no one but yourself. And the words on the paper that I have written for myself sometimes become very, very tricky. Sometimes, when I'm saying the words, they sink in deeper.
V: Would you describe the atmosphere as intimate? Do you break the fourth wall?
A: There's no fourth wall! There’s people with me on stage. That's how I've designed the set. People sit with me on the rugs. I come out into the crowd, I pick on the crowd. If you don't want to be picked on, please don't sit in the front row. Because I will find you!
V: You’ve been through the challenges of the immigration system. What would you recommend are some ways to support friends or family going through the same thing?
A: I have been very, very blessed by my friends who have supported me and they've let me vent and rant constantly about immigration. They feel for me. They may not understand, but they feel for me. I think that is enough, for me at least.
It’s hard to support someone that way. But there are organisations that are doing the work. And sometimes it's also just a matter of saying hey, I don't have the capacity or the information to help you, but I can guide you to organisations or research that does.
I think, moreover, in our situations, we just want to sit in it. We want to know that you are there. When we pick up the phone and cry, we just need someone who listens and holds space for a conversation.
V: What do you think are some important takeaways from ‘BLACKLISTED’?
I guess after coming to the show, I just want audiences to feel the need to challenge the system. You know, question it. Stand up against it. If you see racism happening, don't be a bystander. Have an open mind. We want people to engage in the conversation.
But also enjoy it! I hope that people find little pieces of themselves in the show. Maybe identity, family… There’s something in there for everyone- the older generation, the youngsters that are coming up… They are the future of what is going to happen to these countries. If we change the narrative and we raise awareness, then we've done our bit for the next generation to come.
V: You mentioned that the play or the piece ends on a hopeful note. How important do you think hope is in these stories?
A: Oh. It's crucial. It's crucial, right? Because if I had no hope, I would be very bitter. The show would be very bitter. It would be very angry. Without hope, I don't think this story would exist. I think that I have had to be incredibly resilient and optimistic with this story. So yeah, hope is a very big aspect of my show. It’s all I'm holding on to right now.
For students, there is a discounted price of $25 for the shows on Wednesday 6th and Thursday 7th of September, with the code #STUDENT.
Don’t hesitate to reach out to Vertigo for access to tickets if you are a person of colour experiencing financial hardship.