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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Memories are important, they help me understand who I am!

Sooner or later we all discover that the important moments in life are not the advertised ones, not the birthdays, the graduations, the weddings, not the great goals achieved. The real milestones are less prepossessing. They come to the door of memory unannounced, stray dogs that amble in, sniff around a bit and simply never leave. Our lives are measured by these.

Susan B. Anthony

A very good quote, except today it is a “milestone” I’m remembering because if my mother was still alive, she would be celebrating her 94th birthday. Annie Brown Courtney (later McInnes) was born on April 15, 1921, in Northern Ireland, on the border of County Antrim and County Down.

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For Mum
Mairi Neil

I think of you baking scones,
your floral apron streaked with flour.
Ingredients never measured,
just swirled together
by experienced hands,
used to work. And gifting love.
The soft splat of dough
against Formica,
the thump of rolling pin,
scrape of metal cutter,
and then,
the leftover scraps
patted to shape a tiny scone…
‘For you – this special one,’ you said.

This poem was first published in February 2010. Included in the vignette, KitchenScraps: Mum’s Legendary Scones, part of a collection based on family recipes published by Women’s Memoirs, an online site in the USA devoted to women’s memoir writing.

It was also chosen to be included in A Lightness of Being, a poetry anthology by Poetica Christi Press, 2014.

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In 2008, I wrote the following tribute to Mum when I was lucky enough to have her staying with me for a few days.

MUM’S HANDS

When I hold my mother’s hands in mine, they’re as soft as rose petals; the translucent skin, fragile. The sense of touch is the most important now Mum’s eyesight and hearing have failed and she loves cradling my hand between hers or places her hands in mine, to be held and stroked.

However, a bruise can appear with a minimum of pressure. When she stayed with me recently an ugly purple mark grew overnight, the result of a bump against the unfamiliar bedside table. At breakfast, the dark smudge merged with sun and aged spots, an ugly blot staining pale skin.

Mum’s delicate hands have shrunk like the rest of her body. Not surprising really because she has just celebrated her eighty-eighth birthday. Yet, sitting side by side on the couch, she grabs my hand with a grip reminiscent of my childhood when she guided me across the road, my fearless protector from rogue cars or lorries.

Nowadays, she wears gloves day and night. Poor circulation makes her hands permanently cold but as we sit in companionable silence on the couch, her love is like an electric current. I feel the strength of those once sturdy hands and reflect on how hard they have laboured, how gently they have nurtured, how faithfully they have worshipped.

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Mum has always been petite and had to accept that once her six children reached adolescence we could all boast about being taller. She laughed off our bragging, reminding us that 4’ 11” was an easy height to beat. She’d repeat one of the many proverbs she liked, ‘good things come in small packages’ or ‘it’s not what a person looks like that makes them what they are, it’s the intent of their hearts and the good they’re willing to do for others that matters’.

On the back of her hands, I trace the dark blue veins resembling mountain ridges and think of the goodness in Mum’s heart; her long history of helping others epitomised by a William Penn verse that sat framed on the mantelpiece in our family home.

I shall pass this way but once;
therefore any good that I can do,
or any kindness that I can show,
to any fellow creature,
let me do it now.
Let me not defer or neglect it,
for I shall not pass this way again.

Mum’s watch slides around her child-sized wrist. Her wedding and eternity rings are too large now for thin fingers; they hang on a gold chain around a wrinkled neck. My fingers look like sausages beside Mum’s thin bones, but with recently diagnosed osteoarthritis, I suppose I’ll develop knobbly arthritic knuckles too. There is no escaping genetics – well not for me. I remember trying on the eternity ring Dad bought for Mum as a surprise, knowing if it fitted me, it would fit Mum’s finger.

I stroke Mum’s skin gently with my thumb, and ponder the changes wrought by a lifetime; recalling the days when her hands were capable and strong. Skilful hands that baked cupcakes, decorating them with a smear of homemade jam and a sprinkle of coconut because it was cheaper and quicker than icing — with six children plus friends, fairy cakes, scones or pancakes rarely had time to cool before being scoffed.

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The cakes filled several tins; enough to feed a gang of children and their mothers in our Scottish neighbourhood when we made our annual trip to the seaside in Dad’s Bedford van. A day trip made each summer, to Pencil Monument at Largs from Davaar Road, Braeside where we lived in a close friendly community. Those tins filled again when we went on a Highland holiday, travelling with the Devlin Family in an old WW2 ambulance Dad and Willie Devlin converted.

Few women worked outside the home in the 1950s and many men in the new housing scheme worked shift work like Dad, especially shipyard workers. Dad was a railwayman, his mate Willie Devlin, a shipyard worker. Summer sojourns planned with precision. The day trip entailed Dad making two trips in the van to Largs, a popular seaside town a half hour journey along curving Inverkip Road. The bends offered thrills to those perched on makeshift seats in the back, but also spectacular views of pretty seaside towns like Inverkip and Skelmorlie.

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The first trip had Willie in the front and children prepared to travel without their mother, in the back. At Pencil Point Park, the back doors of the van were thrown open and there was a mad rush for the sea, or to play on the helter-skelter. Some of us just ran around whooping like Red Indians in what we considered a grand spacious park.

‘What Home do the wains come from?’ asked the park keeper.
‘Ma hame, his hame and half a dozen other hames in oor street,’ said Willie with a laugh.

Dad grinned as the keeper stared at the range of sizes and ages and our uninhibited joy. Dad and Willie understood why the park keeper thought we were from an orphanage. One trip, six-year-old Ian McDonald in his excitement to be at the seaside, kept running, even when he reached the water. Willie fished him out and the poor boy had to spend the day in a spare pair of my knickers, which never bothered him until he was teased about the incident years later in Australia as a ten-year-old!

Willie, left in charge, Dad returned to Davaar Road to pick up the mums, toddlers, and babies –– and the all-important food: Spam, salmon, or corned beef sandwiches, pancakes, scones, fairy cakes and bananas freshly ripened in our airing cupboard. The fruit Dad had got in bunches off the boats– one of the few perks of being a railwayman when the banana boats came in from the West Indies.

There would have been jam sandwiches too, spread with the delicious bramble jelly made from the buckets of brambles we picked from the hillside. We loved blackberry picking – there is something very satisfying about searching through the tangle of thorns for the fattest, glossiest fruit. We often went with the Davaar Road Gang: the Dochertys (Anne Marie, Kathleen and Dennis), the McGrattans (Graham and Billie), Pamela Ritchie and Billy Fleming, the Moffats (Sandra and Margaret), the Devlins (Rose and May) and even Jean Jepson if she had louse-free hair and we were allowed to play with her.

Up over the hill, we’d go, or down to the farmer’s field, searching through hedgerows with our buckets and jam jars swinging from tiny hands. A good picking session a regular feature of autumn half-term holidays because berries thrive in the cooler Scottish summers, where long daylight hours help them to ripen with plenty of flavours. Brambles or blackberries grew profusely in the wild. The scratchy, thorny bushes never deterred us.

Later in Australia, Mum’s hands churned out griddle scones or pancakes at midnight, when as teenagers, we came home with friends, all with the munchies after a night of ten-pin bowling, ice-skating, or partying.

I have lost count of the number of times I sat mesmerised as those hands deftly mixed ingredients in a large bowl – a pinch of this, a handful of that, a swirl, a knead, a pat – to produce scones and apple tarts or pancakes and cupcakes that disappeared within moments and had us begging for more. Mum’s preparation and production of scones legendary, so much so that my daughter Anne, Mum’s namesake and first granddaughter dreams of videoing the process for posterity.

When told of this Mum shook her head in disbelief and laughed. ‘You know I couldn’t cook a boiled egg when I married your father in 1948.’ she said, ‘I was never taught to cook or allowed in the kitchen by old Maggie, my stepmother.’

‘How did you become so good at baking?’

‘Your dad taught me a lot. His mother had a heart condition most of his childhood and he had to help her. When she died at the beginning of the war he was in a reserved occupation and more or less took charge of running the house.’

I laughed. ‘I’ve never seen Dad bake scones or cakes.’

‘Oh, he didn’t teach me how to do that but gave me the confidence to experiment. I learned from the Women’s Weekly and The People’s Friend – and I remembered watching my Cousin Minnie and Aunt Martha out on the farm.’
Mum’s eyes stared into the distance, the fingers fussing with buttons on her cardigan suddenly still… and she was back on the farm…

When my Grandmother died in 1927, Mum became motherless at six years old. Her grief-stricken father had a pawnbroking business to manage, plus a three-year-old son, Tom. Grandmother’s family offered to take the children to their farm near Boardmills eighteen miles from Belfast. Mum lost her mother and the same day became separated from her father apart from a visit on Sundays when he could make the trip from Belfast.

Six-year-old hands were soon feeding hens and collecting eggs in a wicker basket, patting the smooth flesh of horses released from yoke and plough, filling a trough with a warm meal for the pigs, and learning to form letters in a tiny country school.

Yet the five years spent on the farm until her father remarried and took her back to live in Belfast were the best years of a childhood shattered by grief. It was on the farm her hands became nurturing hands.

From the first week of her arrival at the farm, she helped look after her dead mother’s sister, Annie, whom she was called after. Annie was grandmother’s older sister and suffered from a debilitating muscular disease that sounds similar to motor neurone disease or multiple sclerosis. The symptoms were such that Annie lay in bed 26 years, unable to do anything unaided while her muscles gradually seized. When she heard of her younger sister’s death, it was the last time she was able to communicate by words. She murmured through twisted lips, ‘Poor John, poor weans.’ After that, she communicated by eye signals – one blink for yes, two blinks for no.

Mum recalled a day when Annie made the most horrible gurgling sounds trying to speak, her eyes blinking furiously, as she stared in terror at the open window. Paler than usual her skin gleamed from perspiration. Mum thought an intruder had entered the room or Aunt Annie had seen ‘the shadow of death’ that the Reverend Grim talked about in church all the time. After examining the open window, she turned again to the moaning patient and let out a blood-curdling scream.

Those adults within earshot ran up the stairs two at a time. A giant wasp hovered above bedridden Annie, attracted no doubt by the vase of fresh flowers on the bedside table. The thought of its sting had Mum in a lather of fear too because she was allergic to insect venom.

Over the years, Mum helped care for Annie by massaging her hands with oil and placing cotton wool between her fingers and in her claw hands to prevent sores and calluses and keep the skin supple. Sarah, a woman from the village came daily to attend to Annie’s toilet needs and to feed her. Sarah cleaned Annie’s room, did her laundry and helped with general housework. She would read the Bible and any newspaper or pamphlet that came into the house, to the poor woman lying trapped in a twisted body in the farmhouse bedroom.

Hands that tended an ailing Aunt from a very young age were called upon at teenage to nurse her father, who died in 1939, a few weeks after the declaration of World War Two and a few months after Mum’s eighteenth birthday.

Mum often talked about returning to Belfast at eleven years of age, when her father remarried. Unconsciously fingering her own wedding ring she said, ‘Daddy died in my arms while I recited the 23rd Psalm, his favourite psalm…’

I squeeze her arm, take both of her hands in mine and think of the many times these hands have been clasped in prayer and how Mum’s faith sustained her through life’s hurdles.

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After the war, she nursed patients in the epileptic colony of the Orphan Homes of Scotland (Quarrier’s Homes) while training to be a nurse. Later, married with her own family Mum’s hands were kept busy with the relentless tasks of mothering six children – later still caring for twelve grandchildren – even sacrificing retirement freedom to care for two grandsons after my brother’s marriage ended.

Hands immersed in water, hands red raw from hard work and winter cold, hands stained from bramble jelly, hands dry from bleach, hands massaged with barrier cream – nurturing hands, labouring hands. Hands rarely raised in anger, but often dabbing at tears, cuddling and seeking to comfort, and clasped in prayer.

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