Indigenous Theatre and the stories of our history – are we ready to listen?

By Dione Joseph

This article is part of our April and May theme: the relationship between art and human rights – a topic very close to our hearts. If this interests you, take a look at our “Art” category to the left of this page, or click here for past publications of artwork and reviews.

What does theatre have to do with identity politics?

Well, the answer in short, is everything. Story, music, dance and other forms of performance play an integral role in the development and maintenance of diverse cultural identities for the Australian Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. Story in particular is a device that has been used for countless generations and Indigenous cultures have always placed a very strong emphasis on oral storytelling and the passing down of knowledge through story and through song. Australia is privileged to have a dynamic Indigenous theatre industry but it is still a relatively unknown entity for many Australians. For those unfamiliar with the exceptional skills, creativity and artistic excellence of Indigenous theatre here is a glimpse of three different companies and their recent productions – all of which resonate with the power of story.

Bangarra is one of Australia’s premier dance theatre companies, yet it is astounding that after 20 years with numerous productions touring all over Australia there are still many individuals (and of those plenty who regularly frequent the arts) who are not familiar with this national company. This year aside from their annual production which will be coming to Melbourne in June (Terrain) Bangarra’s Artistic Director Stephen Page also collaborated with two of the best names in choreography to present a recent triple-bill at the Arts centre. Infinity was a program that showcased the work of Graeme Murphy (Australian Ballet) Gideon Obarzanek (Chunky Move) and Stephen Page (Bangarra) to bring together a new experience for lovers of the art of dance. Page’s piece Warumuk – In the dark night was the third installation of the night.

But what does theatre have to do with debates on identity politics? Well, the answer in short, is everything.

As a re-telling of the creation stories from Dhuwa and Yirritja songs and stories from North East Arnhem this work highlighted the mysteries of change from the evening star to the morning star in a desert landscape. More than an example of change in nature, it reflected upon the changes present in our understanding and enjoyment of Indigenous dance forms. Articulated through the movements Bangarra and the Australian ballet dancers collaboratively telling an Aboriginal story there was a sense of elation as the audience witnesses what reviewer Carol Middleton calls “a cross-fertilisation of styles shaping the identity of Australian dance”. Bangarra is proud to uphold Indigenous values and stories but it is also creative in its exploration and collaboration. One could hazard that the majority of audiences who would normally watch works such as Swan Lake or Romeo and Juliet may not have been exposed to performance by Indigenous dance theatre. Different alibi could exist but after this particular production many confessed that they, although avid fans of the Australian Ballet, it was their first exposure to the strength, skill and technique of Indigenous dance.

But aside from dance, what is Indigenous theatre? The state of Victoria is fortunate enough to have its very own Indigenous theatre company, Ilbijerri (pronounced: il BIDGE er ree) a Woiwurrung word that means “coming together for ceremony”. Since 1990, the company under the artistic director of Rachel Maza has been providing an opportunity for Indigenous voices to be heard and 2010’s production of Jack Charles vs. the Crown was, and continues to be, one of the greatest local stories to be told – both on the stage and the street. Again, the emphasis is on story and luckily Jack Charles has a gutsy bluesy voice because his singing is something special too. Since its launch at the Melbourne International Arts Festival the show has gone on to tour extensively around Australia to incredibly positive reviews. Why? Jack Charles was a cat-burglar, an opium addict and his life was more like navigating your way through white-water instead of reclining upon a bed of roses. But he is history incarnate. Not just Indigenous history but Australian history – with no reservations he shares his own personal journey as a member of the Stolen generations, but also his talents, his artistry as a potter, his skill as a smooth talking con-man, and his genuine desire to help those who have been incarcerated make a change in their lives.

If Bangarra can be identified for its strong aesthetic style, exquisite dance movements and rapidly developing narration of hybrid storytelling then Ilbijerri’s dedication to theatre can be seen as politically charged but still with a sense of humour. The warmth and passion exuded by Jack Charles is a reflection of the effort and commitment by Rachel Maza (Director) and John Romeril (co-writer) to bring this cabaret-styled satire to life. But that’s not all. Indigenous theatre is multi-layerd and heterogeneous.

Big hART (a company also formed over twenty years ago) is proud to share the stories of the communities they work in collaboration with. Last year the Malthouse Theatre was privileged to host Namatjira, a familiar name to most Australians because of the regular appearance of Albert Namatjira’s paintings on every possible kind of souvenir paraphernalia. But did you know that Albert Namatjira was considered part of the “flora and fauna” until he became the first Aboriginal citizen of this country in 1957? Not because of his excellence in the visual arts that he was conferred this honour, but because Albert Namatjira was earning far too much for the likes of the Australian government who couldn’t work out how to tax someone whom they had designated as sub-human. Big hART’s Artistic Director Scott Rankin has created a company dedicated to creating change through art. “Too often, we encounter these issues framed as narratives of despair with no way out. Big hART is there to help communities change the story.” This is story once again but telling it through and with communities that allow the shape and form of the work to be revelationary.

The stories of this country deserve to be told, respected and recognised. With a history that stretches back further than any other civilization why is our engagement and understanding of Indigenous culture so inadequate that the citizens and those resident here today still have such limited knowledge? Theatre allows us to tell stories and share knowledge. Witnessing the performative we are invited to experience change and grow in our awareness of the land we call home today and its people. There are many companies in Australia who pride themselves on producing Indigenous work, and certainly plenty more than the above mentioned three, but if you haven’t already experienced Indigenous theatre and you do believe it is important that Indigenous voices are heard then you know what to do.

To read reviews and interview about these three shows please see:

See reviews by Australian Stage and Arts Hub.

Jack Charles v the Crown
See Perth’s The West and the Sydney Morning Herald.

For an exclusive interview see the interview with Australian Stage

Big hART
Reviews from Augusta Supple and Alison Croggon both share some very valuable insights.