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Black and white in full colour

Mary-Ann Robinson

Blak Inside, a series of Indigenous plays from Victoria, performed at Melbourne’s Playbox to sellout crowds. It’s a vote of confidence in the medium that these writers chose to craft their stories for theatre. I saw 3 of the 5 productions.

Belonging by Tracey Rigney is a story told simply and clearly. Cindy is 13, on the edge of womanhood and not sure where she belongs in her river town. She has friends and she has Pop, a solid, calm old man. Belonging stays with Cindy through a few days of upheaval at the brink of life-changing events. Cindy’s cousin Janice comes to town, looking to party. Tough, seemingly hard, but only 14, Janice does any kind of drug, looking for any kind of fun, hurt and reeling, throwing her body hard at a world that hurts her. She risks great pain to help her feel she can’t be hurt again and she drags Cindy along, needing to tell her how bad, how hard the world is, what a shitty future they have. Cindy’s internal battle is played out simply at the level of what happens to who, but the threads are long and knotted and the story compelling.

Jadah Milroy uses more complex poetic and surreal elements blended with humour to weave together stories of people lost in the city. Crow Fire is the story of Dayna. Raised white, and a public servant, she is frustrated with life and unable to make a difference. Dayna is drawn to Crow, a spiritual force, a big black survivor. Donning her crow costume, she tries to generate a fire in the people she encounters—a politician and her disillusioned banker husband; Yungi, who has come from the desert to the city seeking help; and Tony, her friend.

Casting Doubts explores the question of Aboriginality as it is recognised and performed for broader cultural consumption. A casting agent seeks Aboriginal actors for film roles. Writer Maryanne Sam develops a series of threads around the legitimacy of Aboriginal culture, whether it is denied or embraced. She explores the deep sense of betrayal sometimes felt when working in a cultural industry that insists on a narrow fantasy of the perfect Aborigine—trackers in loincloths, domestic servants who say ‘Sorry missus’ with downcast eyes. To get the job you play the part, but when the ‘trackers’ are in the waiting room, they’re on their mobiles—serious, contemporary dudes. The ‘domestic servant’ is gorgeous, worrying about wearing concealer and crocodile shoes. Are they Aboriginal enough to fit the crap parts written for them? “Him one big hebby pella…me go no furda, boss.” Then back on the mobile and into the suit to resume real life as an Aborigine. Oh well, there’s always Othello. This cleverly constructed play leads us, laughing, through layers of perception about race and image.

Conversations With the Dead is a giant of a play, performed at full stretch over 2 and a half hours by a powerful cast supporting Aaron Pederson in the performance of a lifetime. Richard Frankland’s script and direction drag us to the edges of suffering and pain through a series of conversations with those whose files and stories he worked on during years with the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody. Just when you can take no more, he eases back with music, some smart jokes and then takes you deeper into the unrelenting pain of Aboriginal deaths and the effects on families across Australia: the suicide attempts, the slashings, the chroming (solvent sniffing), the funerals every week, the disintegration of family life. From the inside, drinking and violence make sense at the end of a long line of breathtaking provocation and grief, the result of being pushed beyond what is tolerable. This is an extraordinary play with not only powerful material but also an understanding of the medium, the use of image, music and non-verbal waves of emotion flooding the audience.

These plays all speak the rich language of people not represented well in Australian culture. The language is tough, quick, hard, Australian, Aboriginal: lots of ‘deadly’ and ‘fullas’ and ‘cuz’. Not a lot of glamour, but lots of humour, some soft, but a lot of it hard, bleak, bitter. Still bloody funny though. These stories cannot be told by outsiders. Insiders in the audience just lit up, amazed to finally see it all up there, life reflected back in full colour.

Belonging, writer Tracey Rigney, director Lauren Taylor; Casting Doubts, writer Maryanne Sam, director Kylie Belling; Crow Fire, writer Jadah Milroy, director Andrea James; Conversations with the Dead, writer-director Richard J Frankland. The season also included: Enuff by John Harding and I Don’t Wanna Play House by Tammy Anderson (see RT46 p38). Blak Inside, Playbox Theatre and Ilbijerri Arboriginal & Torres Strait Islander Theatre, designer Robyne Latham, lighting Rachel Burke & Michele Preshaw; composer Peter Rotumah, sound David Franzke; CUB Malthouse, Melbourne, Feb-March.

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 34

© Mary-Ann Robinson; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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