Personal and Political – the Power of a Playwright

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The Channel in the corner of the Arts Centre

 

This time last week, I attended The Script Club at The Channel, a studio in the Victorian Arts Centre. We discussed Barungin, Smell The Wind, a play, written in 1988, by West Australian playwright, actor, and poet, Jack Davis, a proud Nyoongarah man.

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This is the blurb from the 1989 Currency Press edition.

The traditional Aboriginal survival skills and the symbolic meaning, ‘to have a direction’ are embodied in the title of this final play in the trilogy which includes The Dreamers (1983) and No Sugar (1985). Jack Davis carries the history of his people into the 1980s as the Wallitch family confront land rights disputes, alcohol abuse and finally an innocent death in police custody.

Barungin, with its humour and close family loyalties, is the strongest statement yet from our foremost black playwright; and a powerful culmination of his dramatic history of Aboriginal life from the arrival of the white man two hundred years ago.

Barungin is a play in two acts, set in Perth, Western Australia during 1988 – the year remembered for the bi-centenary celebrations of the establishment of a settlement at Botany Bay and the start of Australia’s colonial history.

CHARACTERS

All of the characters, except one, are Aboriginal:

Granny Doll, her daughter Meena, Arnie, Meena’s husband, Peter Meena’s brother, Micky, Meena’s 14-year-old son, Little Doll, Meena’s 12-year-old daughter, Robert, Meena and Peter’s cousin, Peegun, a family friend (and Meena’s lover), Shane another cousin.

At the start of the play Arnie and Peter are in jail.

The non-Aboriginal is an evangelical preacher delivering a funeral sermon at the  beginning, which can be done as a voiceover. 

WHY BARUNGIN?

The facilitator of the discussion, John McCallum, chose several Australian plays considered classics. The Script Club discusses, deconstructs, and debates the merits of the plays and whether they could be meaningfully performed today.

  • We look at the form, the representation of the characters, the politics.
  • How or if it could be presented to keep the original essence and meaning intact.
  • What, if any, changes should or could be made to make the play relevant to modern audiences, especially considering the advancements in technology. 
  • Can technology be used to enrich the experience of the audience?

The play was not classified as an ‘Aboriginal form’ or even ‘Black theatre’ as we know it today, but domestic realism. (Aboriginal theatre is one of Australia’s most successful cultural exports, but it wasn’t always.)

At the time of first performance, the playwright, Jack Davis, drew criticism because of the portrayal of domestic violence, drunkenness, law-breaking and acceptance of infidelity as the Wallitch family struggle on the fringe of white society, dispossessed of their land and dislocated from mainstream society.

Some within the black community saw this frank representation of characters caught between two cultures as a betrayal, or unhelpful at a time of fighting for land rights and equity. Negative images adding to the ammunition of detractors and racists.

This is not a new argument. Historically, in the radical left movement, women were expected to wait until workers (who were predominantly male) achieved their rights and then ‘the women question’ would be solved. Within the Women’s Liberation Movement lesbians found themselves excluded from some discussions.  Voices for change always struggle to find common ground.

Jack Davis spawned a whole wave of black playwrights who like himself wanted a dialogue with the dominant white culture. Reconciliation, not revolution, although his honest portrayal of the problems ruffled feathers, he didn’t pull any punches in Barungin. The massacres and devastation wreaked by Europeans when they invaded and colonised Western Australia, as well as the rest of the continent, are listed with devastating effect.

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John always asks The Script Club their initial thoughts and reactions to a play, reminding us to read it twice before judgement.

My initial reaction was overwhelming sadness and simmering anger. Not just because of the shameful past but because many of the issues in this play written 28 years ago are still unresolved.

If anything, with the rise of voices supporting far-right, xenophobic political parties like One Nation and Reclaim Australia, I despair we will ever get it right!

The most important theme of Barungin is black deaths in custody, or at the hands of the police, who are supposed to protect and serve. In the 1980s, these tragedies were highlighted by the death of John Pat, which affected Jack Davis intensely.   It shocked many people.

Unfortunately, despite a Royal Commission, the number of black deaths in custody have increased. A shameful state of affairs – and now we have the Royal Commission into Youth Justice in the Northern Territory because of media exposure and public outcry.

How little has changed! Can anyone in authority really say they didn’t know this was happening?

There have been 53 separate reports in the NT alone on disadvantage, welfare, and treatment of Aboriginal Australians. Do we need any more?

So, a resounding, yes – Barungin needs to be revisited and performed.

THE DISCUSSION

There were ten of us discussing the play: John facilitating, Joshua from the Arts Centre who organised the club, and eight women – all white – that in itself is perhaps telling. Although even with the respectful and amenable confines of our gathering, if I were Aboriginal I could not read this play as a dispassionate discussion about history, meaning, or stagecraft. It is a narrative too many Indigenous people are living – and the story of too many dying.

Joelle, who recently migrated from America said the play resonated strongly with her in the context of the Black Lives Matter campaign in the USA.

 We have had echoes of the movement here too.

When the list of those who have died in custody are read out in the final act of the play it reads like a list of state-sanctioned executions – not by the scaffold or firing squad but consequences of inherent injustice and racism, neglect, humiliation, and brutal acts of genocide. (1883:  180 Aboriginal prisoners died on Rottnest Island from disease, many more hung – not one buried in a marked grave.)

Sandy, originally from  New Zealand, commented on the lack of knowledge or learning of Aboriginal languages and culture in Australia.  Maori language and culture respected and integrated into many facets of New Zealand society and institutions.

Why hasn’t Australia embraced Indigenous languages, taught a deeper understanding of culture and black history? Often the acknowledgement of traditional owners is perfunctory. Why such resistance to change Australia Day to a less offensive date

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Iris Lovatt-Gardiner

 

BLACK THEATRE

Up until the 1970s, there was no specific black theatre. The cultural shows or stories performed were organised or appropriated by whites.

In 1972, the National Black Theatre emerged from Regent Street, Redfern, NSW, with an explosion of plays, dance, activist poetry, biting satire and street theatre. It gave a new voice to the struggles of the 1970s and the Redfern Aboriginal community.

During its 5 years of operation landmark playwrights such as Kevin Gilbert, Robert Merritt and Jack Davis worked at the theatre, as well as actors such as Bob Maza, Lillian Crombie and Justine Saunders, cultural activist Gary Foley and director Brian Syron

Creative Spirits

Critics may suggest there is a loss of authenticity in Barungin because as John, paraphrased Audre Lorde , the African-American feminist, poet, and essayist…

‘You can’t tear down the master’s house using the master’s tools.’

The two-act structure of Barungin an appropriation of ‘White’ form as were the many accepted playwriting tools and rules Davis used to craft his story. However, his story arcs, use of props, dialogue, and character development work well and are effective, also his integration of Aboriginal dance, music and “lingo.” He stamped his aboriginality on the script in many ways.

Scenes jump off the page and his use of humour dealing with such dark subject matter eases the tension for the audience. We believe these are real people, especially the tight family unit and the relationship of Granny Doll and Little Doll – the passing on of knowledge, the acceptance of new ways. 

“… survival is not an academic skill. It is learning how to stand alone, unpopular and sometimes reviled, and how to make common cause with those others identified as outside the structures in order to define and seek a world in which we can all flourish. It is learning how to take our differences and make them strengths. For the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us temporarily to beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”

Lorde, Audre. “The Master’s Tools Will Never Dismantle the Master’s House.” 1984. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Ed. Berkeley, CA: Crossing Press. 110-114. 2007. Print.

Reading Audre Lorde’s quote in context, Barungin and the large body of work Jack Davis produced is all about encouraging an understanding of Aboriginal identity and belonging. Advocating a society based on mutual respect. 

He did bring about genuine change for his people.

Davis made a major contribution to intercultural relations in Australia, a contribution that was acknowledged through a range of awards: the British Empire Medal for Services to Literature and the Aboriginal people of WA, 1977; Member of the Order of Australia, 1985; WA Citizen of the Year, 1985; the Australia Medal 1986; Human Rights Award, 1987; BHP Award 1988. His literary awards include the Sidney Myer Performing Arts Award, and Hon. D.Litt. from Murdoch and in 1986 No Sugar was co-winner of the Australian Writers Guild Award for the best stage play of the year.

The Academy, ACU library

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Aboriginal Australia is the oldest continuous culture in the world, the latest estimate 60,000 + years. The idea of a single ‘Aboriginal nation’ a construct because when the country was colonised there were at least 250 languages spoken with 600 dialects.

Jack Davis emphasises how important language is to identity and culture, his characters speak Nyoongarah as well as English.  A glossary of Aboriginal terms – over 40 words – listed at the end of the play.

The use of Nyoongarah is a powerful statement. When the words are used, the audience is able to work out the meaning or the essence of what is said. It could have an exclusionary effect, particularly since the target audience would be non-Aboriginal, but I doubt it.

The theatre-going public, attend dramatic plays with the expectation of being confronted as well as entertained. Reminding them of the sovereignty of the Nyoongarah, including their language, imperative to the authenticity of the play.

Barungin holds a mirror to a white audience (we have many of the same issues with alcohol, domestic violence, stealing)  and challenges us to rethink our assumptions.  What do we ‘know’ of Australia’s history and the Indigenous  people.

Barungin is a play that will change what and how you feel.

DOES THE PLAY WORK?

We explored whether Barungin was a bridge or a failure toward confronting audiences with Aboriginal reality and the important social and cultural issues needing to be addressed:

  • deaths in custody
  • land rights and cultural dislocation
  • acceptance of Aboriginal sovereignty
  • acknowledgement of Aboriginal disadvantage
  • cohesion and importance of family ties

Lisa mentioned Aboriginal songlines (maps of the land) associated with landmarks and trade routes. Aboriginals explored this continent and marked out territories long before colonial explorers “discovered” mountains, rivers, and valleys!

It is in the knowledge of the genuine conditions of our lives that we must draw our strength to live and our reasons for acting.

Simone de Beauvoir

Racism is real in Australia. It was evident in 1988 and still is in 2016. 

We must reach down deep within our being and acknowledge any fear or loathing of “the other.” The justifications and excuses we make for the treatment of those who are different. Statements such as ‘it’s the past’ ‘I didn’t know’ ‘it wasn’t me’… are not good enough responses to stolen land, stolen children, stolen health, stolen life expectancy.

The personal and the political influence our choices and we find our voice to make change happen.

You cannot use someone else’s fire. You can only use your own. And in order to do that, you must first be willing to believe that you have it.

Audre Lorde

Jack Davis certainly had fire, talent, integrity and heart and a strong belief in the merits of his culture and people’s contribution to country – Nyoongarah and beyond.

I’d like to believe the Treaty denied Aboriginal people (as well as Constitutional recognition) will happen in my lifetime and a national understanding of what was lost with invasion and colonisation will be acknowledged and true reconciliation will occur with the equity and respect still denied.

Plays matter and the power of a playwright such as Jack Davis shouldn’t be underestimated. Barungin still has a contribution to make towards understanding the historical and current pain of Indigenous dispossession. It reveals and at the same time shakes stereotypes.

Joshua’s comment on the last scene has stuck with me.

News of Peter’s death in custody is announced and the play ends with Meena reading a long list of names while the others lay wreaths…

Joshua asks did Davis write the play backward? That is did he write it as backstory to Peter’s death?

Are there one hundred plus other plays to be written?

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2 thoughts on “Personal and Political – the Power of a Playwright

    1. It certainly was – and I reflected a lot about what to write – re-reading Lionel Shriver’s keynote address to the SWF and the various worldwide responses, and thinking deeply about some aspects of the conversations we had and also some of the comments and observations I found challenging. Not sure if I’ve done the play or the afternoon justice – but if one person is receptive to exploring the writings of Jack Davis, I’ll be happy:)

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