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2012 sydney festival: black at the centre

keith gallasch: interview, wesley enoch, director, i am eora


Radical Son, I Am Eora Radical Son, I Am Eora
photo Lisa Tomasetti
ONE OF THE 2012 SYDNEY FESTIVAL’S CENTREPIECES IS BLACK CAPITAL, FIVE EVENTS AND PERFORMANCES HOUSED AT CARRIAGEWORKS ON THE EDGE OF REDFERN, HOME TO AND MEETING PLACE FOR INDIGENOUS PEOPLE FOR MANY DECADES AND A SITE OF PAIN AND SOCIAL TENSION BUT ALSO OF INNOVATION.

Black Capital includes 181 Regent St, Addressing Black Theatre, an exhibition and symposium curated by Rhoda Roberts. Forty years ago the National Black Theatre was established in Regent Street in Redfern launching the careers of Indigenous actors (including Bob Maza, Lillian Crombie, Justine Saunders) and writers (Robert Merritt, Kevin Gilbert, Jack Davis) in an atmosphere of cultural reflection and activism. Visual artist Brook Andrew’s Travelling Colony will fill the CarriageWorks foyer with hand-painted caravans in which you can experience the sounds, images and stories of Redfern. The Barefoot Divas, six singers and songwriters from Australia, New Zealand and Papua New Guinea will bare their stage lives and their relationships with their respective cultures in Walk a Mile in My Shoes. Black Capital Day will open the event with ceremony, performance (including excerpts from Erth’s I Bunyip), music and food.

At the centre of Black Capital is I Am Eora (I am of this place), a large-scale work with some 30 artists bringing together performance, film, literature and music under the direction of Wesley Enoch, artistic director of the Queensland Theatre Company. Three key figures in I Am Eora and in the history of Aboriginal Sydney are the warrior Pemulwuy, the resilient nurturer Barangaroo and the reconciler Bennelong. I asked Wesley Enoch about the I Am Eora collaborators’ motivation for the work.

So Wesley, are you Warrior, Nurturer or Reconciler?

Ha! That’s interesting. We sat around a table—me, Anita Heiss and Michael McDaniel doing a creative development months ago—and we all started to say, “Oh no, you are Barangaroo, you are Pemulwuy...” And it’s interesting that none of us wanted to claim Bennelong. He seems in the Aboriginal sense to be the ‘sell-out.’ But ultimately he’s the one we all think we are. We like to think of each other as warriors but we actually think of ourselves as the sell-outs, people who didn’t stand up enough.

I’m sure you’ll all be standing up with I Am Eora. How have you worked on this? Did you start with a script or did it come out of collaboration and improvisation…?

The beginning point was a discussion with (Sydney Festival Director) Lindy Hume—this is like four odd years ago—about the seminal stories, the important stories of Aboriginal Sydney. We were looking at a whole range of moments in time and what I landed on were the archetypes, if you like, that are based on the Warrior, the Nurturer, the Interpreter. These repeat themselves throughout each cycle of development in terms of the history of Aboriginal Sydney or Aboriginal Australia—to take the metaphor further. I’m sure there are more but these three figures became the touchstones for those archetypes. These historical figures—Bennelong, Pemulwuy and Barangaroo—started a way of understanding how we are today. So, all that thinking happened sitting around with a number of Indigenous thinkers and artists to tease out the idea behind the story, coming to the point where we said it’s not about telling the story in an historically accurate way. It’s more about trying to capture this feeling, the spirit of these archetypes and playing them out.

So you’re not bound by a narrative?

No. There are narratives but the idea of trying to make them totally accessible to an audience isn’t the issue. Koori Radio has emphasised how music is a real strength, especially in NSW, in terms of bringing things forward. We were talking about what Black Arm Band’s been able to achieve by singing songs. We said, well, we want to do more than that. So we’re looking at creating a supportive environment in which songs are sung and we tell a loose narrative about each of these figures.

In terms of the Warrior, Radical Son (David Lehar) already had a song about Pemulwuy that talks about the Warrior Spirit. So we’ve used some moments in Pemulwuy’s life as inspiration. He was considered in some respects almost super-human, surviving near fatal attacks twice before being killed with seven shots. So there was a sense that he would rise from the ashes and appear somewhere he shouldn’t have, just when everyone thought he was dead. One of us said, “Imagine if a kid went to a dress-up party as Pemulwuy instead of a super-hero. What would that look like?” One of the images of the show is just that. This Aboriginal kid turns up in a Superman outfit and is undressed and ochred up as a way of saying, “you are the connection to this man.”

Wesley Enoch Wesley Enoch
photo Prudence Upton
This is juxtaposed with the contemporary song?

All the music is contemporary although one of the things we’re looking at is a translation of “Botany Bay.” What does it mean if Bennelong sings “Botany Bay” in Darug? It’s a fun thing to do but also to show the living culture of it. With the music, we’ve looked to a number of key artists: Radical Son, The Stiff Gins and Wilma Reading. Wilma’s a fascinating Torres Strait Islander woman who does 1960s jazz, popular music and has toured Europe and lived in America for years.

How did you arrive at the casting?

A little by chance; a little by design. The casting evolved. We asked, “Well, who embodies these three archetypes—what songs, what actions would embody these three spirits?” I should say no one is actually playing any of these historic figures. The spirit of Barangaroo is played by five people in one section because we’re wanting different styles and different connections. But the spirit of Bennelong is being played by one man, Jack Charles, who has a connection through the Wiradjuri people [of central NSW]. For us, he’s not actually playing Bennelong—he’s playing an interpreter.

There’ve been incredible cultural gymnastics around negotiations about cultural ownership, about the position of the Darug and the other clans around Sydney Harbour and beyond—and a lot of stories often refer to primary sources written by non-indigenous people. We were trying to go for stories that were also shared or stories that have come through oral traditions, and different ways of looking at story.

Did you find these Indigenous stories easily or did you have to seek people out?

It’s a challenge. People come forward and tell us bits and pieces and so in some respects the whole show is a provocation to think in this particular way—even the title, I Am Eora, comes from a number of different sources. It’s almost a Reconciliation provocation too: how do the people who live in this land call themselves the people of this land? In some of our discussions we’ve quoted Germaine Greer’s Quarterly Essay, “White Fella Jump Up,” where she’s basically provoking people to think if you’re living on Aboriginal land, how do you call yourself “of” that land? And so I Am Eora is as much about saying how can people in the audience walk out after the show thinking, I need to feel like I am from here, I need to be of this land. I don’t know if they’ll get that. But that’s where it comes from at least.

A lot of people think of Sydney as a place where Aboriginal connections to the past are tenuous, where most of the clans were wiped out. But this will hopefully generate a strong sense of presence.

There’s lots of ownership. Just in the last few days I’ve had more Darug elders come and say, look we need to talk about this. I’ve got stories. In one of the creative developments we had a dancer in and he said, well in fact Bennelong is my great, great, great—I’ve forgotten how many greats there were—uncle. We draw a line down through connection to him. And you think wow! It makes sense. Of course there are still people living in the land who draw connections down 200 years or more to these people. It is fascinating.

The questioning of the dominant idea that Aboriginal people in Sydney didn’t exist or they were all wiped out is wonderful to challenge because these are historic figures; Pemulwuy, Barangaroo and Bennelong were real people. One of the contemporary manifestations of Barangaroo we think is Mum Shirl. We’re even talking about seeing [the politician] Linda Burney as being one of the modern manifestations of a strong female figure and nurturer in the Aboriginal community.

Finally, what about your own connection with Sydney through I Am Eora? You lived here when you were directing for the Sydney Theatre Company.

The support for and investment in me and my career and in me doing what I want to do, all that has been pretty incredible. We do have to pay our dues. The other thing is I’ve always had a very complex relationship with Sydney, emotionally complex. I’ve always felt a bit disconnected from and a bit hurt by Sydney. But I Am Eora is an incredibly patient way of Sydney saying okay let’s tell you some stories, make you feel welcome and part of it. The conversations are not easy. There have been some very heated discussions around the material. To be learning all the time is really important. Eleven years ago I moved to Sydney and now I’m actually thinking, this is maybe the project I should have started with as opposed to going to the Sydney Theatre Company and doing what I did [LAUGHS].

I’ve seen you on YouTube talking about I Am Eora.

That YouTube thing! The Associate Producer strategy—the crowd-sourcing idea—has been incredible, raising $240,000. The people of Sydney are really investing in I Am Eora—one big donor and then lots of mum and dad investors saying, yes, we’ll give a couple of thousand dollars for this story to happen.


Sydney Festival & CarriageWorks, Black Capital: I Am Eora, director Wesley Enoch, co-writer Anita Heiss, CarriageWorks, Sydney, Jan 8-14, 2012, www.sydneyfestival.org.au

RealTime issue #106 Dec-Jan 2011 pg. 14, 16

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

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