PRESENTER: Hi, I’m Nathan Ramsay and you’re listening to Newslines Radio, a weekly program produced by the Australian Government on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander issues.
From the beginnings of the Black Theatre in 1972 as a protest movement in Redfern, Sydney, to the international acclaim our Indigenous actors, writers and filmmakers receive today, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytelling on stage and screen has come a long way.
We’re going to take a look at the history of the Black Theatre, the pioneers who first brought their stories to the stage, and hear from some of today’s actors and writers as they discuss the challenges in maintaining their Aboriginal identity while furthering their careers.
PRESENTER: Speaking at the recent 181 Regent Street: Addressing Black Theatre Symposium, which celebrated 40 years of the Black Theatre in Australia, the Australia Council’s executive director of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Arts, Lydia Miller, explains the evolution of traditional storytelling.
MILLER: While traditionally Aboriginal story telling had many functions, and it still does, it reinforced Aboriginal people’s ideological beliefs in the Dreamtime, their creation and other cultural stories of the rainbow serpent and creation ancestors and their environment. Storytelling was a learning process. Children learnt from an early age how to survive their environment by listening to their elders.
The first public performance by Black Theatre was street theatre, to publicise the Black Moratorium and the Aboriginal land rights claim against Nabalco Mining. The next performance was to lead the Aboriginal land rights demonstration where for the first time Aboriginals with their families came out on the streets in large numbers to support their younger people. You should remember also that in Redfern, as in many parts of the country, there were 6pm curfews where Aboriginal people had to be off the streets and police patrolled the area to enforce this.
PRESENTER: Symposium convenor and Bundjalung woman Rhoda Roberts says today’s thriving Indigenous theatre industry is built on the revolutionary efforts of the Black Theatre’s pioneers.
ROBERTS: Those pioneers who passed and went before us, those who are with us in the audience today, we would not be standing here today without these amazing individuals who thought about their community and the future generations. This is Louise Corpus singing, the words are Dulcie Flower. Aunty Dulcie sang this song and Louise lip-synced. And this is from the Black Moratorium.
PRESENTER: That was Aunty Dulcie Flower singing in Basically Black in 1973, at the start of the Black Theatre movement.
Lydia Miller also paid homage to the many pioneering artists of Black Theatre.
MILLER: The Black Theatre honour roll reminds us all of those artists and cultural warriors who have gone before us and their achievements and legacy. Their influence as champions, mentors and colleagues, confidantes, role models, strategists, revolutionaries, conspirators and friends are the inspiration for my life and understanding of its meaning.
The extraordinary contribution of these artists over the last 40 years has, as Noongar elder Rosemary Vandenberg stated, opened up a whole new concept in Australian writing. Readers are getting a different perspective on Aboriginal life because stories are coming from an Aboriginal point of view, recorded and written by Aborigines from their own experiences of being Aboriginal. And they are having more say in what is being written about them. Aboriginal people are re-writing Australia’s history, instead of readers gaining their perspectives from historians, anthropologists and others from academia.
PRESENTER:Looking at the current mix of Indigenous plays and films, Rhoda Roberts says the future is looking bright.
ROBERTS: I think the industry is absolutely thriving… We are starting to have capacity building with young producers coming through, new directors, and I think the change we’ve seen in productions, if you think of Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers or Cake Man by Robert Merrett, they were essential plays, they were about our communities and the lives that we were facing on a day to day basis.
If you move into the recent productions we’ve just seen like Bloodland with Wayne Blair and Steven Page, it’s incredible that now in our productions we’re actually addressing so many taboo subjects in our theatre and our stories. And Toomelah, the new film by Ivan Sen, we’re actually looking at our communities in a very honest manner and addressing such taboo subjects of substance abuse and domestic violence and what it’s like and we perhaps wouldn’t have done that several years ago. It was more about the plight we had whereas now we’re going well these are the situations we’re facing.
PRESENTER: You’re listening to Newslines Radio. We’ve been talking about the history of the Black Theatre and the wonderful legacy it has left for today’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytellers.
As Indigenous theatre and film becomes more entwined with their mainstream counterparts, our artists are finding themselves faced with new challenges, as I Am Eora writer and director Wesley Enoch explains.
ENOCH: And I guess as an artist the question I constantly am kind of rolling around is, am I in service of my community or am I in service of my art and are they mutually exclusive? And I don’t think they are mutually exclusive. You are often going through this process of saying, ‘How am I servicing my community? How am I servicing my art?’ Does it have to be authentic and true and real and from someone’s story, biographically someone’s story, or can it be an act of imagination, and where does the artist fit in all that? It’s quite an interesting dilemma I think.
PRESENTER: That was playwright and Noonuccal Nuugi man Wesley Enoch. Fellow Aboriginal playwright Cathy Craigie believes the answer is in producing a range of stories.
CRAIGIE: For me I think there’s the stories that we have in our communities and that have got to be told but then there are some other stories, like I Am Eora, that can probably be universal sort of stories.
I think often as an artist you aspire to be part of mainstream, you also want to be able to be given those parts. But I think there’s an element that the whole reason most of us got into this industry was because we saw the telling of our stories, for two reasons, one to educate the mainstream mainly but I think most importantly was to use it to educate ourselves about own histories and cultures.
You do want some universal stories but you also want our stories that are personal to us and that still keep that strong Aboriginal content and cultural perspective in it.
PRESENTER: Noongar actor Kelton Pell would like to see more Aboriginal people honing their craft so they can tell any story at all – even non-Indigenous ones. The stage and screen aren’t just great avenues for sharing culture, they’re also mediums in which Indigenous people can build strong careers playing a range of characters.
PELL: I’m so privileged that I’ve grown up in the theatre. And I have really grown up, I have matured because I only done a Shakespeare play recently in Perth, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and usually all of my characters that I do, it doesn’t matter, I played Kenny Carter in The Removalists and I made him black, that’s me. The director tries to say play a white fella and I say “well you get a white fella. You employ me as a black fella, I bring my black element to it”. But with this last play, I didn’t, I was neutral. And I actually felt good in myself not having to play a black fella or a white fella, I was just me, I was the character, I was the words on that page.
PRESENTER: Moogahlin Performing Arts director Fred Copperwaite agrees and notes that people are often surprised to see Indigenous actors in non-traditional roles.
COPPERWAITE: I teach at Eora, I started teaching there last year, and I did a production of Midsummer Night’s Dream, the first thing we did, and people came to me afterwards and said, “why are Aboriginal students doing Shakespeare?” and I said, “why not?”. As an actor you should be able to play anything. It’s about casting as well and giving people the opportunity to play in Aboriginal plays, Aboriginal stories, but also to be on the other side of it where they can play anything at all.
PRESENTER: But as well-known actor and Yamatji man Ernie Dingo points out, there is often a certain irony in Aboriginal people wanting to be cast what are usually considered “white roles”.
DINGO: It’s nice to see Aboriginal performers performing Shakespeare, and we encourage it and we thrive on it because it gives them the chance to grow.
I’m laughing in the back of my head because we sort of get funny when someone white plays an Aboriginal. I mean Tate played Bony in the series Bony. Tate was a Kiwi and they painted him black. The reason why you don’t see any shots from the top because he was balding and they had to paint him and you could see his white head at the top. We get toey at the fact when someone non-Indigenous plays an Indigenous role and we’re trying so hard to get our Indigenous actors to play non-Indigenous roles.
PRESENTER: That was the great Ernie Dingo talking about the casting of a white actor in the 1970s TV detective series Bony.
While most agree that the stage and screen are excellent avenues for sharing our traditional stories, Rhoda Roberts believes that Indigenous people need to be given mainstream roles as well and be accepted for their acting talents, not just cast for their heritage.
ROBERTS: We still need to have that representation across the mainstream, across Home and Away and the fodder that’s fed to Australia out there. We still don’t have that representation. And rather than have the Aboriginal doctor arrives in Summer Bay, wouldn’t it just be great to have a doctor who happens to be Aboriginal in Summer Bay. And we still have a lot of work to do with that sort of arena I think. I think that’s where a lot of change will occur, when people see us as part of society and not the other or on the fringes, as we’re often depicted.
PRESENTER: Supporting Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander storytellers as they make their mark on the stage and screen is something the Australian Government sees as very important. Many of our Indigenous productions have been made possible by Government funding through the Australia Council for the Arts.
The Australian Government is also developing a National Cultural Policy to support the arts and strengthen its contribution to a dynamic and diverse Australia.
To find out more about Indigenous storytelling on stage and screen, and to read our Indigenous Newslines magazine, visit our website indigenous.gov.au. You can also follow Closing the Gap on Twitter, and friend Indigenous Newslines on Facebook.
I’m Nathan Ramsay, thanks for listening to Newslines Radio.