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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Dominoes Down, Happiness Up

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On Saturday, February 6th, we didn’t encircle the world but we linked many parts of Melbourne CBD with giant dominoes. The outcome astounding, and as one member of the public said, ‘I’ve never seen the people in the city so happy.’

There was definitely an upbeat vibe.

The development of earth art and installation art stemmed from the idea of taking art out of the galleries. Involvement in the arts engages people in their community, improves self esteem and builds creative skills.

Dominoes was the third project funded by the amazing philanthropist, Betty Amsden and her Participation Program determined to do just that – engage ordinary people in a creative pursuit and improve community wellbeing.

 

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Betty Amsden in middle, yours truly on right and another volunteer on left.

Dominoes by Station House Opera supported by Arts Centre Melbourne on Saturday 6 February, ticked all the boxes.

There was

  • excitement
  • enthusiasm
  • passion
  • wonderment
  • learning and laughter
  • fun and fandom (we all love Betty)
  • chatting and connection
  • in depth conversations
  • friendship making
  • and even some dancing…

At the afterparty, a new friend Rhonda found just enough energy to do a bit of rock and roll with me when I decided to take my weary body and sore feet home! Below she greets a very hot and sweaty me at the end of the line where the last structure was being dismantled outside the Arts Centre.

 

Conceived and directed by UK-based Station House Opera, Dominoes was first created as a celebration to link the five host boroughs for the London Olympics Arts Festival. Dominoes takes as its starting point the simplest of ideas – a line of dominoes – and will transform the rhythm of the city for one special day.

Thousands of breezeblocks are used to create a moving sculpture, which runs through the city, unfolding over the course of the day. Occasionally disappearing from sight and then resurfacing, sometimes pausing for sculptural performances, the line of dominoes will thread its way through historic and everyday parts of Melbourne.

To make an extraordinary event like this,  Arts Centre Melbourne needs literally hundreds of volunteers to help build the 2km line of dominoes with more than 7000 breezeblocks. Arts Centre Melbourne’s team is looking for about three hundred volunteers!

Press Release : Planet Arts Melbourne, December 2015

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The day to participate arrived and the weather forecast said the day would be HOT – 32 degrees hot!  Despite my Celtic pelt, menopausal weight gain, and propensity to perspire profusely once the temperature hits 30 degrees, I set off for the city with hat, sunscreen and the fervent hope I’d be assigned somewhere with shade.

Melbourne hadn’t sweltered for days like Perth, WA, but by the time I reached Flinders Street Station and commenced the short walk to the Arts Centre, the concrete pavement and city buildings oozed heat.

Tingles of trepidation building in my stomach exploded with joy when I discovered my assigned section for the day was Hamer Hall. Hurray! It was ‘next door’ to the Arts Centre, there would be easy access to toilet facilities and bliss, oh bliss, air conditioning.

I sat down with my Section 10 to hear the last minute pep and the all-important risk management talks feeling I’d won Tattslotto. I introduce myself to others: Alison, Jenny, Wei,Rhonda, Jeff, Ian, Colin …another Jeff…

Unfortunately, some volunteers did not turn up on the day. Perhaps the weather played a big part in this because the whisper said almost 20% failed to report, an unusually high number.(Organisers usually plan for 10% of volunteers failing to show.)

Regardless of the reasons, we were delayed setting off to allow a reshuffling of numbers. We lost 5 members to another section. I felt guilty not putting my hand up to swap sections but decided to be selfish – Fate had dealt me a good venue and I don’t tempt Fate.

At last, wearing  our distinctive  t-shirts and orange backpacks, we followed our leader Stacey to Hamer Hall where she walked us through our route and explained various roles.

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The venue would be open to the public at 1.00pm so there was no time to waste unpacking the blocks from several pallets and placing them in strategic spots for the set up.

The domino line would come in from Southbank and move up the stairs towards street level. The route is explained here.

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The entrance point with our orange kit bags : water, gloves,poncho in case it rained – fat chance!- and brochures of the route.

A reality check altered the picture I had of the task ahead. Our dominoes would start at the door but after moving through the building we had to build a considerable number outside to link up with those heading for the grand finale at the Arts Centre.

I wasn’t going to escape the heat entirely. And there’d be mega crowds because we were so close to the finish line. Thank goodness volunteers had distinctive T-shirts and Stacey and Lachlan, the section leaders had bright red tops.

I looked around at my fellow volunteers – mostly  in their 60s like me – thank goodness we had several younger men and women too. Whoever organised the groups did well.

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From the moment we started work I appreciated our friendly team and the display of commonsense, cooperation and congeniality. Although none of us had been involved in something as daring as Dominoes, most had volunteered in some capacity before. We were an eager team!

We had a lovely family with two young children. The youngest, Eliza, drowning in a much too big t-shirt while she helped me clean up the considerable amount of concrete dust that fell off each block as we manhandled them into position. Eliza held the rubbish bag open for me and was most diligent throughout the day. My little friendly shadow.

The gloves in our kits earned their keep protecting hands because with several hundred blocks to shift bare skin would have suffered. The gloves also helped our grip and although there’d been an allowance for breakages we didn’t drop one. Go team!

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The first flight of stairs
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Marble and mirrors – extra care needed!

We emptied the first pallet of dominoes with a speed that surprised ourselves. Stacey beamed, “The way to go, Team!”

Organisation the key as we spread in even distances  up the stairs and played pass the parcel with the blocks. Every 10th or 15th block left lying down just in case anyone knocked the dominoes accidentally.

Later in the afternoon outside, a little boy tested the domino theory much to his parents’ embarrassment. Jeff and Jenny fixed it in a trice.  We tried to comfort the family that no harm had been done; it was all part of the unexpected fun of the day.  However, we were glad only a few blocks had to be set up again.

Indoors required patience and persistence too. There were two flights of stairs, several general areas, plus the foyer. Surfaces varied:

  • tiles
  • marble
  • polished wood
  • carpet

And of course those fragile mirror walls!

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The females in the group more conscious of the mess and the danger of scratching the beautiful interior surfaces. I had flashbacks to childhood:

Careful you’ll scratch that!                   Watch you don’t break that!

We carried the 8kilo blocks and manoeuvred them into position mindful of workplace health and safety rules and protected each other:

Lift one block at a time!     Bend your knees.       Mind your back!    Have a rest.         Let me help.

Hours disappeared as we worked ahead of schedule.

Before the expected public invasion, there was a short break for a tasty lunch delivered in brown paper carry bags by other volunteers. A salad roll, sandwiches, square of chocolate cake and an apple, plus fresh bottles of water. Volunteers from the section setting up along Southbank joined us, seeking relief in the coolness.

Outside was really hotting up. I discovered I’d missed a call from number one daughter who’d decided to pop by and say hello but couldn’t get inside the building and so went home. C’est la vie.

In the foyer, we had to leave big gaps for public access to the ticket counter. We carried on building to the bemusement of arriving staff. Anticipation and crowds building too.

We finished ahead of schedule, but knew once the signal was given we’d have little time to place the missing blocks into position. Betty Amsden‘s words rang in our ears. “Things will go wrong, but it doesn’t matter. Having fun does.”

A morale-boosting visit by Betty and Arts Centre Staff and some of the creative Station House Opera team from England reinvigorating. Lots of interesting interaction with the public and chats among volunteers fulfilled the participation aim of the project.

It was Chinese New Year, the city buzzed with visitors and locals. Some had heard of Dominoes, others were thrilled they’d chosen this day to explore Melbourne’s delights.

The Dominoes route coincided in part with the display of Chinese characters on the Crown Riverwalk:

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After we’d packed up for the day I strolled along snapping as many pictures as I could but decided the year I was born, 1953, the Year of the Snake didn’t sound like it produced nice people. Oh, dear!

I put the categories in the same basket as horoscopes (horror-scopes) and clairvoyants. Negativity wasn’t going to spoil the wonderful day – one day I may check out if Celtic predictions are better!

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One of the fun parts of participation was allowing young people and others to pick up the blocks and watch the surprise or glee on their faces at the weight and texture. When they were told the blocks are given away and recycled some said they’d like one, others were glad organisations were already planning to use them.

Some children were too little to pick  up the blocks, but I found a way for one family to participate by suggesting two little boys use the wood packing strips to build their own domino line. While they were amused their parents took photos and learned about the project.

 

There was a lull in activity once our section was completed without disrupting public access too much. Jenny and I were assigned to ‘guard’ the line, particularly from cyclists cutting through to City Road. Cyclists who were supposed to dismount and who in 99.9% cases never did – even when they saw the crowd, and the blocks. Oh, dear again! (Maybe they were all born in the Year of The Snake.)

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The deadline drew closer – the first domino to fall scheduled for 5.00pm, the last at 5.25pm.  I wondered how the grand finale was shaping up. It seemed an incredible task to achieve in a short timeframe.

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However, not only did the jobs get done but when Stacey and Lachlan announced the line had started to fall the excitement really did reach fever pitch. In fact, it all happened so quickly the 15 or so minutes it took to reach Hamer Hall seemed like seconds.

The roar of joy and anticipation as the blocks clunked and fell up the stairs to whizz past me is a few moments of drama on my mobile. And suddenly I was surrounded by a cheering, rushing, crushing scrum following the dominoes up the hill towards the Arts Centre tower.

Wow! An unforgettable adrenalin rush and an astounding success.

But for every high there is a low, what goes up must come down. In what was probably the hottest part of the day because of the build-up of heat, we began the big clean-up.

Our A-team cleaned up Hamer Hall and then some of us helped the Southbank section. It was well after 7.00pm by the time we finished but the organisers had chosen section managers well and the arduous job went smoothly.

The thank you party was in full swing when I got there and the food and bar offerings a welcome sight. I found other members of my team and watched the quick edit of the day’s events filmed by a number of volunteer film makers and photographers.

 

The project and the day were awesome with cheers of the volunteers and organisers reinforcing that as people recognised themselves or their venue on the screen. The artists, organisers and volunteers did a magnificent job. Betty Amsden’s vision satisfied and the city of Melbourne the winner.

As I walked over Princes Bridge towards Flinders Street Station I breathed in the smells of the city at night: coffee and delicious food from street cafes, the pungent manure and sweat from horse drawn carriages, the brake fluid and exhaust fumes from traffic, the scent of a thousand perfumes and deodorants – and my own sweat from a hard day.

Two women called me over to their table, wine glasses in hand.

How did you do it?’

Pardon?

How did you keep your temper.

And you were so patient!

I couldn’t do it!

You mean building the dominoes?

And keeping the crowd from knocking them over .Some people were silly…

… And pushy.

Oh, were you at Hamer Hall? Did you enjoy it?

We loved it! Wouldn’t have missed it for anything!

I’m so glad. That’s what it was all about. 

I continued on, until amidst the cacophony of traffic and revellers I heard the haunting yet uplifting sound of Indian music. Was it the Hare Krishnas? An advert for a show or other celebration?

I peeped over the bridge to Southbank and spent a few minutes absorbing the tranquillity of the River Yarra and the joy of living in multicultural Melbourne.

We live in a wonderful city and when I think of the many trouble spots throughout the world we are truly blessed.

Dominoes down, happiness up indeed!

 

And here is the finished film of the day – not just the small part I played, but the bigger picture, including footage taken before the city event.

The first half of the film shows the dominoes making their way from the Port of Melbourne through Footscray, Brighton, Toorak, Richmond, Fitzroy and laneways in the CBD to the beginning of the live route at Melbourne Town Hall. The second half features the live event on 6 February.  Logistically, they couldn’t capture footage of each and every block that fell, but the film brings back some of the thrills (and spills) of the day!

The film credit goes to:

DOMINOES
by Station House Opera
Presented by Arts Centre Melbourne
Project III of the Betty Amsden Participation Program

 

 

 

 

 

 

Plays from the Past still relevant for the Present

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In the 70s, when I attended university in Canberra, the memories I cherish are the hours solving the world’s problems while sitting with friends in the campus bar at the Australian National University. At night, we’d have a beer; during the day, a coffee. The intellectual discussions and debates stimulating and meaningful, adding value to the lectures and tutorials provided at one of Australia’s most prestigious universities. I was lucky many of the staff wrote the text books for their particular subjects. My teachers included: Manning Clark, Humphrey McQueen, Daphne Gollan, and Dorothy Shineberg.

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At university, I was continuing a tradition started at home by my father and mother. The family would sit for hours after dinner, listening to family anecdotes, sharing stories of our day, discussing current affairs, politics, religion, exploring philosophical questions and ideas thrown up by books, films, TV shows or the daily newspapers.

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I miss the conversations my husband, John and I had about so many  subjects and events. I appreciate writer friends, other members of the Union of Australian Women, my two daughters and my writing students, filling the gap left by John’s untimely death in 2002, because I  crave intellectual stimulation.

Life gets busy, people are short of time; we can all be distracted or self-absorbed. Conversations can be minimal, repetitive and shallow, only touching the surface of a topic, ignoring the philosophical to concentrate on the popular, avoiding the controversial and challenging issues. We  live in the digital age, the 24 hour news cycle, the era where investigative journalism is almost non-existent. Important issues often ignored or underreported.

However, on Saturday, I relived university days courtesy of my dear friend Lisa Hill who told me about a wonderful new project at Arts Centre Melbourne, in The Channel, the Centre’s newest venue.

The Script Club is an invitation to rediscover classic Australian plays, and share your opinion ‘in a robust round-table discussion led by John McCallum – Theatre Critic for The Australian and Senior Lecturer in Theatre at UNSW.’

Copies of the plays provided beforehand, plus a copy of John’s book Belonging, Australian Playwriting in the 20th Century. The website advertising blurb promises, ‘This is an open discussion, not a lecture – you bring your own opinions and we’ll bring afternoon tea!’

John McCallum explained the motivation behind Script Club, which was first presented by Griffin Theatre Company, Sydney

“There are many great plays in the Australian repertoire that have, mysteriously, been more or less forgotten. They still have a lot in them to excite us and to say to us, and they ought to be revived. Script Club highlights three of these. It is like a tasting menu (there are many more). When you read an old play you should always ask, ‘What’s in it for us, now?’ That is what we will be asking.”

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The first of the three classic plays to be considered was Brumby Innes by Katharine Susannah Prichard, and considering the current controversy over Aboriginal footballer Adam Goodes and the subject matter of the play, there’s an easy answer to John’s first question. A definite yes for relevance!

The preface in the Currency Press 1974 edition we were given, states:

…The one guiding principle will be to make the play as accessible as possible in the imaginative sense. Whatever the format adopted to meet individual circumstances, the editor will include a discussion of the play and of its place with the work of its author. Where appropriate, comment will be made on the stage history and staging of the play…

In one summary Brumby Innes “begins with a corroboree and, like Coonardoo, attempts to engage with a portrayal of Aboriginal life. Its central character, Brumby Innes, is a swaggering drunk who exploits the black workers on his station and abuses the women; he bears a close resemblance to Sam Geary in Coonardoo. Yet, Brumby Innes provides the central energy of the drama, and the celebration of that energy in the play conflicts with the dramatic critique of his sexism and racism. Brumby Innes’s character exemplifies the ambivalent attitude in Prichard’s work toward this type of male hero. Portrayed as stereotypically masculine, such characters are admired for their energetic, vital sexuality; yet, the extreme limitations of such maleness are also acknowledged.”

The prize-winning play, although written in 1927, wasn’t performed until 1940. A press cutting from Western Mail  Thursday 26 December 1940 can be found on Trove:

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Here’s a link to a review and reasonable summary under the title Realism, racism and seduction in Brumby Innes when the play was performed again in the 70s.

Lisa and I read the play before the Script Club and as I sat at the table with the others, I mentioned the controversy over Adam Goodes, and suggested Australian society needs to, in the buzz word of the moment ‘have a conversation‘ about our attitudes, in the past, present and our future relationships with indigenous Australians. The racial inequality and power structure the play highlights (between Aboriginal and White Australia, between men and women, between those who own land and those who have nothing) remains, as this article by Aboriginal journalist Stan Grant illustrates.

John McCallum led the discussion with the question: – Reading this old play, what’s in it for us in 2015?

The 9 of us around the table at the inaugural session offered plenty of reasons of why the play should be performed with suggestions on how it can be staged using modern technology and stagecraft.

The group comprised John, Joshua (a producer at Arts Centre Melbourne), two other men (one a theatre actor, the other a West Australian with personal experience of the setting of the play), five women (a translator and university educator, two theatre actors, a project officer with Arts Centre Melbourne, and myself). Unfortunately, Lisa couldn’t attend,but when she does we’ll have her wealth of experience as a blogger specialising in Australian literature.

There because we loved various aspects of Australian theatre, whether it was writing, acting, stagecraft, historical setting and background, topics and themes explored, or just the whole appeal of drama, we discovered that apart from John, none of us had heard of Brumby Innes.

John said each play chosen for Script Club will be looked at in view of modern day performance.

  • Can we recapture original script?
  • Do we want to? ( If the subject matter and the way it is written is controversial, or deemed inappropriate/irrelevant.)
  • Can we do something new?  A reinterpretation perhaps, capturing the spirit of the original, or perhaps a mash-up and revision.

Although performed rarely, Brumby Innes (along with a great body of the author’s work), is studied in drama courses and at universities. It was written when the Australian dramatic theatre tradition was yet to be born and Prichard confesses many times that she didn’t consider herself a playwright. However, John McCallum’s mission is to see Brumby Innes performed again and considered a classic among Australian plays.

Under his guidance, we explored the characters and themes and agreed how wonderful this play could be if staged. Perhaps become a ‘game changer’ if performed today in collaboration with indigenous artists and dancers. The need for authenticity demands discussion with indigenous actors.

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The importance of reading the script twice became obvious as we shared what we remembered, forgot or misunderstood as the discussion progressed. John advised the first time you read a script you pick up some clues, but the second time is when you begin to appreciate the nuances of the plot and characters. (Memo to self, before Script Club in October read the selected play twice, and then again just before the session!)

Brumby Innes was written in the early part of the twentieth century and some of the language used when referring to Aboriginal people is not used today. (for example: reference to women as ‘gins’) However, the play does challenge the conventions of the time – the Aboriginal cast outnumbering the whites, the opening scene being of a corroboree and much of the action from the perspective of the ‘black’s camp’ as opposed the settler’s homestead. Aboriginal words are used throughout the play; the Aboriginal characters often speaking at length in their own language.

Prichard notes:

“The corroboree in this play is used to give something of the dignity, beauty and mystery of a primitive people in their natural surroundings: against their appearance under the conditions of a vanquished race…

Words sung to the corroboree are treasure really. The Aboriginals seem reluctant to tell them, superstitious of unravelling their mystery, perhaps. Often the words they sing are not words of their everyday language. Many of the corroboree songs, or tabee, are in a dead language, I think… hereditary legends and sag, drifted down from remote ages; others are inspirational, sung by the yinerrie, inventor of corroborees, or poet of the tribe, and director of ceremonies, as the spirit moves him.

Only folk reared on isolated stations, who have had lifelong associations with the blacks, or a native who has broken with his people and traditions, are able to gather some of these songs and to tell us their meaning.”

The opening scene lets you see the Aboriginal world, the community that is being destroyed by the white ‘invaders’ when a drunken Brumby Innes arrives demanding Wylba, a young Aboriginal girl goes with him to the homestead. When Wylba and her boyfriend Mickina protest, Brumby pulls out a gun and fires it. Peace shattered just as Aboriginal culture is shattered by arrogant men like Brumby wielding their power.

The link between land and power a strong message in the play. The Aboriginals are vanquished, but not vanished despite the loss of their land, the oppression and indignities they suffer. There are instances in the play, and certainly the ending shows they understand Brumby Innes and know how to survive.

Prichard sees the white invasion of Australia as having the same dimensions as the Trojan War. Aboriginal Polly (Brumby’s discarded lover) ‘a Hecuba in bronze‘ representing all the raped and abused Aboriginal women, abducted and taken by men like Brumby Innes. She is given a powerful line in the play  when she challenges Brumby in front of his white peers and says, ‘Liar.’ Her quiet dignity showing she may be defeated, but is a survivor.

It is said about Euripides play Hecuba that it ‘is one of the few tragedies that evoke a sense of utter desolation and destruction in the audience, and there is almost no let up in the mood of suffering and anguish, and no sign of any silver lining. Few ancient tragedies culminate in such unmitigated hopelessness for all the principle characters concerned, and even fewer imply that their terrible fates were quite so richly deserved.’

This sums up how I felt after the first reading of Prichard’s play – difficult to find any likeable character and feeling immense anger at the accurate depiction of the dispossession and abuse of indigenous Australians and all women, whether white or black.

However, listening to other opinions at the Script Club and  John’s persuasive and knowledgeable guidance as he coaxed responses and ideas for staging Brumby Innes, I confess to being excited that the play may be revived. If performed today, the emotional controversy and meaningful discussions generated should engage a huge number of people – force us to have much needed awkward conversations about human rights, equality and social justice.

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How the roles are interpreted by the actors will make a huge difference and we spent some time dissecting the character of Brumby, May and Polly. Prichard was a progressive thinker and her play considered radical, the probable reason of why it wasn’t performed for nearly two decades. She reveals the plight of Aboriginal and white women. Brumby marries May after raping ‘the struggling, but yielding‘ young woman. Brumby pushes her towards his bunk, ‘I like ’em thoroughbred and bucking’ a bit at first.’

It is revealed that Wylbie is only thirteen years old, little more than a child, but Brumby has no shame or remorse when taken to court for abusing her. Another land owner (May’s uncle) lies for him. Brumby is not punished, but two Aboriginal men are sentenced to jail for assault (they challenged Brumby) and stealing supplies (their rations are meagre). Injustice piled upon injustice, but an accurate depiction of the era.

Prichard’s anti-romantic approach and attitude to sex challenges the idea you could or should marry for love. Brumby and May’s marriage happens because Brumby is ready to have children and they must be ‘purebred’. May has come up from the city seeking excitement, with her eye on marrying someone with land and wealth. There is a shortage of white women in the bush, it’s not unusual for landowners like her uncle and Brumby to make arrangements for marriage to carry on the dynasties they want to establish. May is attracted to Brumby’s arrogance and macho behaviour. He has a charisma women find attractive apparently – like Stanley Kowalski in A Streetcar Named Desire, one of the participants at Script Club suggests.

John compares the machinations of cattle station owners to the popular Game of Thrones – the play is full of personal and political power struggles. One of the women agreed, confessing she had to stop herself from being trapped in a TV mentality and applying those expectations when reading the play.

The two hours flew and the refreshments provided much appreciated, especially a scrumptious selection of scones, jam and cream. Brains and vocal chords received a good workout and when I left to catch a train home I thought the lovely surrounds of Southbank an ideal setting for The Channel – the Yarra River a metaphor for the flow of ideas and opinions in Script Club, the backdrop of old and new buildings like the revival of old plays in a modern setting!

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I studied playwriting many years ago under John Powers who wrote The Last of The Knucklemen, which was later turned into a film by Tim Burstall. He liked a play I wrote about domestic violence and encouraged me to keep writing plays. The Bitter End was performed at a women’s forum in Melbourne 2002; a ten-minute play I wrote was short-listed at Kingston’s Write Up Festival in 2013 .

The Script Club has stirred my creative juices and although like Prichard, I don’t consider playwriting my forte, perhaps I’ll have another go at this genre!

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