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The gentle voice of Kevin Gilbert resonates through the room against the clack of computer keys. I’m writing about Gilbert’s play, the first by an Indigenous writer, The Cherry Pickers, 1968, not staged until 1994 (by Kooemba Jdarra). I’m listening to an ABC recording from Awaye on Radio National, an interview with the late artist. His recollections are interspersed with his richly rhetorical poetry. He moves easily from detailing childhood moments, to 14 and a half years in jail, to the emergence of Aboriginal protest, to a metaphysics of belonging, of love, of giving one’s lives for the generations to come. I’m recalling Wesley Enoch’s production of the play, trying to match the voice to the play, a riotous night out that embraces satire, protest, symbolism and a raucous female sexuality. It speaks high literature, it chats discursively. It is celebratory, but its tale is finally unbearably sad.

Much of the pleasure of The Cherry Pickers resides in the moment, camp fire conversations, a string of jokes and joshing, bursts of song, unanimity in the midst of stress. True to this spirit, you arrive to find the party’s already begun and you’re promptly implicated in it, addressed directly, the latecomers noted, friends identified. Next you feel a presence. Above the orange sand floor, above the performers, hang the roots and the base of a trunk of a massive tree. Against the easy atmosphere of the gathering the tree is an ominous presence, long before its sacred power is spoken of, and the imminence of its death revealed—you think the people are talking about a sick elder. The play eventually becomes more interior as the loose plotting tightens around the tree’s death, the death of the Godot-ish foreman who was going to galvanise the seasonal workers, and the devastating loss of work.

For all its humour, and sometimes through its humour, The Cherry Pickers is brutally honest about alcoholism, violence and the desperation that can lead to cultural and spritual dead ends. One of the most difficult scenes in the play is where a man tries to return to an idealised version of Aboriginal life, forcing his partner to go with him. The quest is a failure. So is the scene, despite the commitment of the players. The language is too abstract. But in the rash of climatic moments it makes sad sense as every option seems to close down on this humble bunch of people, who however worn down still acknowledge their spirituality and struggle to come to grips with the idea of protest. On the night I saw the show, the cast’s invitation to join their cries of protest was hard to accept after the depiction of a plight that we could neither presume nor pretend to fully comprehend or own. On other nights of the sell-out season it might have been different. On Awaye Enoch tells the story of a drunken Aboriginal man who leaps to his feet during the show to berate the cast, “How dare you represent our people in this’re dogs and I hope you die...” After the man leaves, the inimitable Lilian Crombie says to the audience, “Welcome to the family.” It’s this honesty of response that Enoch is after: “it’s a form of racism not to tell the truth about our communities.”

The Cherry Pickers is a rough and raucous ride, rude and sexy, rich and melodramatic. Some of the time it’s like any other Western play, at other times it can be quite alien as time stands still. Enoch pushes its discursiveness even further with moments of improvisation and song. He wants white critics and audiences to recognise that Indigenous theatre “is evolving a different form...relaxing western theatre.” He takes it to the limits. He has the perfect cast, all of them adept at slipping from casual discourse into moments of intense engagement. Like many a classic, The Cherry Pickers has its flaws, and the production has its excesses, but its bravery is undeniable, the play’s support for women ahead of its time, and its literary and theatrical thrills and spills are funny, revealing and alarming.

Kevin Gilbert, The Cherry Pickers, directed by Wesley Enoch, designed by Stephanie Blake, lighting Mark Pennington, composer/musical director Wayne Freer; performers Wayne Blair, George Bostock, Luke Carroll, Elaine Crombie, Margaret Harvey, David Page, Tessa Rose, Pauline Whyman; Wharf 2 Blueprints, Sydney Theatre Company, opened Feb 17.

RealTime issue #42 April-May 2001 pg. 29

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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