I AM EORA, Carriageworks, Bay 17, 8-14 January 2012. Photos: Prudence Upton – Miranda Tapsell and Wilma Reading; right: Jack Charles.
MUCH ANTICIPATED and long awaited are two descriptions for what is a hard-to-pigeon-hole event, but which could be characterised as an urban song cycle theatre work. Hooked loosely to three central historical figures – Pemulwuy, Barangaroo and Bennelong – the simmering anger, fierce pride and boundless optimism of Sydney's traditional custodians are depicted in music, dance, word and spectacle.
Bold, imaginative, uncompromising and exciting are all words that spring to mind to relate the journey of the hour and 20 minutes that begins with Suit Man (Luke Currie-Richardson) strolling on to a vast, empty, sloping stage. He is dressed in a smart dark business suit, shiny black shoes, crisp white shirt and dark tie, the epitome of modern Indigenous man. With exquisite care and elegant deliberation he begins to remove his clothes: untying the laces of one shoe, removing the shoe, setting it down, removing a sock, rolling it up, placing it in the shoe; then the other shoe and sock; then his belt – doubled and laid beside the shoes; then the jacket and shirt – laid out and carefully re-buttoned; the tie is removed and set beside the shirt; and finally the trousers – shaken out and painstakingly laid beside the rest. Then he stands before the audience, naked and beautiful, smeared with white ochre, symbolising everything that's different and similar about 21st century Australia. It's a memorable beginning.
What follows can be gleaned from the character names of successive performers: Matthew Doyle is Fire Man – tending a traditional fire that burns in a 40 gallon drum; the irrepressible Jack Charles, who is called The Performer but also takes on the tragedy of Bennelong; Radical Son is The Warrior (Pemulwuy) and Miranda Tapsell The Young Woman (Barangaroo). The glorious WIlma Reading is The Singer and the indestructible Elaine Crombie is The Bride. The Stiff Gins are also integral to the musical aspects (Nardi Simpson and Kaleena Briggs) as is the onstage band (Cameron Bruce, Tim Curnick, Buddy Knox, Teangi Knox and Martin Healey) and the favoured music of black metropolitan life: urgent rap, lilting country and the girl harmonies of Motown-Redfern.
By the time Linda Burnie walked on to stand in the spotlight before a lectern, the audience had been slyly drawn into and through the recent history and aspirational point of view of black Australia, without bitterness but with anger, determination and humour. And suddenly she was there, signifying a remarkable present and future. It's an electric moment as the stage and over-arching matching slope of the back wall are splashed with the words of her maiden speech as she re-enacted her landing in the NSW parliament, as powerful and pivotal – yet in every way less violent – moment as Captain Cook's landing at Botany Bay.
And it was also powerful and inspiring for the audience, especially the women, when she said "the days of fringe-dwelling are over." It could be construed in a couple of ways, particularly as she was being watched by Marie Bashir, the Governor of NSW, Quentin Bryce, the Governor General of the Commonwealth, Clover Moore, the Lord Mayor of Sydney, Lindy Hume, the director of the Sydney Festival, the Black Capital advisory group member, Professor Larissa Behrendt; and the show's indefatigable although allegedly retired producer, Wendy Blacklock.
The show is ragged around the edges – it's still settling in – yet it's dynamic, provocative and a huge leap forward for contemporary Indigenous theatre-making. Director/write Wesley Enoch and co-writer Anita Heiss have drawn together the disparate strands of black urban life into a coherent, visually compelling and dramatically satisfying entertainment. It's seems likely to me that we'll look back on the Black Capital initiative as Lindy Hume's festival legacy and a critical moment in Sydney's artistic and cultural life.