The Day the Sky Turned Black
nytheatre.com review by Amy Lee Pearsall
August 14, 2011
Ali Kennedy Scott created her one-woman show, The Day the Sky Turned Black, in response to Australia’s Black Saturday bushfires of early February 2009. A deadly combination of extreme weather conditions and arson, the fires swept the Australian state of Victoria, leaving 173 people dead and charring 1.1 million acres of land, to say nothing of the thousands of people who lost their homes or were displaced as a result. It was with the intention to further educate myself on this landscape-changing event that I attended the production’s North American debut as part of this year’s New York International Fringe Festival.
Using the real-life character of journalist Heidi Tiltins as a springboard, Scott generates an additional four fictional characters to tell the stories of those who survived the firestorms, ranging from a six-year-old boy to a woman in her 70s. She creates specific playing areas for each on the stage, marking their domain with chairs, an ironing board, and—curiously—a pair of shoes that each character might wear.
While I found the set dressing fascinating, I was mystified that Scott chose to not wear the omnipresent shoes at all. As directed by Adrian Barnes, Scott’s physical transformations from character to character are somewhat distracting and largely focused on what she is doing with her hair. As she moves back and forth between the characters and from hairstyle to hairstyle (tucking it under a cap, whipping it back into a ponytail, braiding it, half covering it with a shawl), the result on the night I saw it was an unfortunate case of static cling build-up during the pivotal final moments of the show.
While I generally enjoyed Scott’s performance—particularly of the elderly Mabel—the character of Aiden, the little boy, needs to be taken down a notch or two on the ADD scale. While I could certainly understand his exuberance over parts of his story, I did not get any sense of fear that he might have felt, or sadness over the people and things in his life that were destroyed. A younger child perhaps might not understand these losses, but at six, I would expect some sense of it to creep in at points.
As the play’s structure currently stands, I often found myself getting drawn in to one character’s story only to have Scott stop and transition into another character. It might be of a greater service to this tale in its next incarnation if each character’s monologue were delivered in its entirety instead of broken up into chunks. This could give the audience an opportunity to emotionally invest in the depth of that character’s experience while affording Scott as a performer the luxury to fully inhabit each character for longer than a couple of minutes at a time.
In terms of design, Scott and Barnes have chosen to bathe the set in blue light and run newscast voiceovers during transitions, and this works quite well as a device to pass along additional information and insight about the Black Saturday bushfires to the audience. Adding nicely to the ambience of the production are original piano compositions by Pat Wilson fashioned in the spirit of each character.
Scott has done a great service to get the word out about a tragedy that many people may not be familiar with—myself included, prior to hearing about her show. At its core, The Day the Sky Turned Black is an illuminating tale focused on the impressive spirit of survival that prevails among the Australian people.