• The Laden Table has been written by a collective of Jewish, Muslim and Christian women in response to ‘dinner table racism’. (bAKEHOUSE)
A new Australian play about two families from different faiths aims to challenge stereotypes and showcase the commonalities shared between cultures.
By
Alyssa Braithwaite

6 Mar 2017 - 11:12 AM  UPDATED 6 Mar 2017 - 11:14 AM

Some years back, writer Yvonne Perczuk was at a dinner party with friends in Sydney, when the conversation took an unexpected and disturbing turn.

Comments were being made about ‘all Muslims’ and ‘all Arabs’ that upset and alarmed her - one person said "oh we should nuke them all". 

Perczuk didn't say anything at the time, and that disturbed her almost as much as the comments themselves. She felt compelled to speak up on a grander scale. And so the seeds for what would become The Laden Table were sown.

Nine years later, the play she ended up writing with five other women will have its world premiere at Kings Cross Theatre in Sydney this month.

The women, who are of Jewish, Muslim and Christian faiths, wrote the play to address 'dinner table racism'.

"Dinner table racism is the conversation you have with your family or a safe environment when you say what you feel about views and other people. It's not politically correct, and you're not likely to hold back," writer Nur Alam tells SBS.  

The play tells the story of two Australian families, one Jewish and one Muslim, both celebrating an important religious feast day - Yom Kippur and Eid respectively.  

With three generations gathered around the table, they talk, laugh, tell stories, argue and pray. The grandparents have survived the Holocaust and the Nakba, the parents are moving forward in a new country while trying to honour the values of their cultures, and the children are overcoming old prejudices in the hope for a better future. By the end of the evening, a secret that both families share will be exposed, changing their lives forever. 

Some of the experiences of the Jewish characters in the play came Perczuk's father's time in the concentration camps during the Holocaust, while Alam's experiences as a Muslim Australian also informed the writing of the play.

"You hear things, you know how people feel about Muslims, and how they feel about Jews or any other groups for that matter," she says.

"It has the words and experiences of the people who wrote the play or their family members and friends."

Director Suzanne Millar says the while the anecdotes are particular to real people, the scenes and conversations are very broadly relatable.

"Yes, it's about a Jewish family and a Muslim family, but it's also about families all over Australia. Every single cast member, whatever their cultural heritage might be, has said 'this sounds like my family'," she says.

"It's that comfortable environment where you can just say what you feel, what you want to say, and it's very unguarded and you hear those sorts of comments that I think we don't often challenge."

Millar, who is also the artistic director of bAKEHOUSE Theatre Company, believes the time is right for a play like this.

In today’s political climate, with the divisive rhetoric circulating in public offices, Millar says it was vital "that we continue to challenge with brave new pieces of writing like The Laden Table".

"I think that what theatre does so wonderfully is that it takes away the statistics and the facts and humanises them. So you spend 60 or 90 minutes in a theatre and you get to know a character's context or the world they come from or why they feel or behave the way they do. And I think that demands from the audience an emotional or empathetic response."

Millar, who says she has a personal interest in staging diverse work and representing the voices of women, acknowledges that the production can be confronting and troubling at times, but she hopes audiences leave with feelings of hope - and perhaps with a few changed opinions. 

After the final curtain, the audience are invited to come on stage and break bread with the cast - eat the food on the table and talk about the issues raised in The Laden Table.

"We've done that in development and it's been an amazing thing - we've had to kick people out the door two hours later. Everyone had an opinion and they wanted to talk to one another about it," Millar says.

"I do think it has the power to make people question their strongly-held beliefs. If we can get 20 people who had incredibly strong-set opinions start to listen and have conversations and communicate and see things from a different perspective, that's successful. I hope it paves the way to treat people with greater respect and dignity." 

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