Theatre – Foley

By Tess Jaeger

Gary Foley’s one-man theatre show tells the story of his life as an Aboriginal rights advocate. Foley is written, performed and co-devised by Foley himself and directed by Rachael Maza Long. Ilbijerri Theatre Company is currently staging the performance at the Melbourne Arts Centre’s Fairfax Studio. The following is a review of the Thursday 13 October evening show, presented by the Melbourne Festival, in association with the Sydney Festival.

Foley signifies [an] accession to today’s young activists …

An Australian Aboriginal Gumbaynggirr activist, academic, writer and actor, Foley is well known for helping to establish the Aboriginal Tent Embassy on the lawns of Canberra’s Old Parliament House in 1972. During this time, he was an active member of the Redfern Aboriginal community in Sydney’s inner suburbs, co-founding an Aboriginal Legal Service and Aboriginal Medical Service.

In his own words, Foley signifies his accession to today’s young activists, whom he encourages to move forward in the struggle for Aboriginal land rights and economic independence. The play follows a chronological timeline beginning with significant events in Australia’s history and the emergence of early Aboriginal rights movements; to Foley’s youth, growing up as a young Aboriginal man in Nambucca Heads on the mid north coast of New South Wales; to his early education and subsequent involvement in Aboriginal rights movements of the 1970s.

Foley spoke of the influence the American Black Panther Party and Black Power movement exerted on Aboriginal activists of the time. For the first half of the show, he wore a black bomber jacket with a diamante-studded clenched fist on the back, the symbol of Black Power. Later, he wore a similarly decorated black blazer with a matching sparkling lapel.

Despite a few minor technical glitches, the performance I saw was well done. The set was minimalist, constructed of a modest plywood stage and strategically placed cardboard boxes bearing stamps that read: “the Foley Collection”. Foley’s laptop computer sat atop a small pile of boxes near the front of the stage. A visual technician was seated to the right, working together with Foley to manipulate the images appearing on three small LCD screens at the back of the stage, and a large screen that sat above them.

Foley is a lively and engaging piece of non-fiction theatre. It is a feat that one performer can keep an audience’s attention for almost an entire show, spanning one hour and 45 minutes (Foley took a short interval in the middle of the performance and welcomed Tony Birch, his friend and co-writer, to the stage to read an excerpt from his recent novel Blood).

… there is a sense of dismay evident in the fact that many of the circumstances Foley and his contemporaries fought against remain today.

The script is bleak at times, and there is a sense of dismay evident in the fact that many of the circumstances Foley and his contemporaries fought against remain today. However, Foley is careful not to deflate his audience, offering humorous side notes and footage of his brief stint in ABC Television’s adaptation of the stage production, Basically Black, which he co-wrote. An image of a now publicly available ASIO file on Foley himself – completely blacked out with only a couple of sentences revealed – was perfectly timed and darkly comic relief.

Foley’s limited Melbourne season runs until Saturday 15 October at the Melbourne Festival. Purchase tickets here.

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