The stage is bare, but for a pile of discarded shells and a square column of thick ropes, hanging to the floor. A figure walks in, holding something. It could be a phone, the way its surface catches the light, but no, it is the milky iridescence of mother-of-pearl. He puts it on the pile. And so begins Marrugeku’s new work Mutiara, a co-created collaboration that explores Broome’s pearling history through the lived experience of Ahmat Bin Fadal, an ex-pearl diver.

Excerpts from Lustre (a Western Australian Museum 2021 exhibition) are displayed in the foyer, and the archival photos and oral histories bring home the intercultural nature of the industry, which sucked Malays, Chinese, Japanese, Pacific Islanders and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders into the dangerous extractive industry that boomed from 1860. Mutiara embodies this interculturality, with the four performers expressing their individuality and their interdependence with gripping physicality.

Detail is everything: a tiny gesture tells, with fragments of Indigenous, traditional, martial arts and improvisation making a dense mixture of ritual and story-telling. There is the Bomu, an amorphous harbinger of chaos. Then there is a young interracial couple, dancing the twist, having a ball. Then there are the divers, with lead boots and faceless globes for heads, dragging their feet in the dreamlike depths. Most affecting is the involvement of Bin Fadal, who moves with solemn grace, his presence turning scratchy photos and historical texts into living memory.

The staging (with set designed by sculptor and artist Abdul-Rahman Abdullah) and lighting (Kelsey Lee) is highly effective: the rope column unfurls to become layers of ropes, curtains through which we see the pearl divers and on which we see archival footage of the pearl luggers at sea. Meanwhile, an intermittent voice-over, the voice of White Australia, gives chilling context.

It takes time for Mutiara to give up its stories. I’m thinking about it, turning over the graceful physicality of Ahmat Bin Fadal, for a long time after the lights go down. History walks among us if we pause for long enough to see it, hear it, and Mutiara asks us to pause, look, listen.