Joyous, comic and grim: the best new Indigenous playwrights

SF17 Yellamundie - photo by Zan WimberleyYellamundie is a Darug word for storyteller, and the name of a biennial play development festival for Indigenous Australian writers run in Sydney since 2013.

The Yellamundie Festival, an initiative of Moogahlin Performing Arts and this year part of the Sydney Festival, brings new, emerging and established Indigenous writers together with Indigenous actors, directors and dramaturgs (and the occasional eminent white dramaturg) to develop raw treatments, partial drafts and yarns into more substantial scripts.

Chosen from a national call, the submissions have to be in the early stages of writing and have not had workshopping or public readings previously. The six plays chosen in 2017 from a wide pool included work by new writers exploring the medium of theatre for the first time as well as new work from more experienced theatre practitioners.

The workshop process is over two weeks and culminates in a public reading of the script by a cast of professional Indigenous actors. Directors and actors who were part of the workshop process read out the scripts before audiences of around 40 people in intimate performance spaces in Carriageworks. The dramaturgs sat in the audience. There was a fabulous supportive energy in the room.

One of the outstanding new playwrights revealed in readings was Henrietta Baird, an experienced dancer with a love of yarning. Her script is a one-woman show called The Weekend, in which the solo performer plays multiple women. It was performed by Angelina Penrith, with Eve Grace Mullaley as dramaturg and Liza-Mare Syron as director.

A beautifully told and sharply comic narrative, it tells of a woman dancer who returns to her career after having children. While on tour, she gets a frantic phone call from one of her sons saying their father went out four days ago, has not returned and they have no food. The play humorously depicts her return home and search for her husband as she discovers layers of his betrayal of her trust.

The search takes place in Redfern, where she encounters other Aboriginal women and is confronted by her husband’s drug and prostitute-fuelled hidden life. Serious consequences are always on the verge of happening, such as when she naively carries another woman’s drug stash while they evade the police, but she escapes unscathed and a little wiser about herself. For Baird, the workshopping process was a way to move from verbatim yarning to playwriting.

Another joyous script presented was Bollywood Dreaming by Andrea Fernandez with Kyle Morrison as director and Liza-Mare Syron as dramaturg. As the title suggests, this story – about an Aboriginal man with Indian heritage who weds an Indian woman – is full of music and dance as well as charming humour. Fernandez handles the dialogue and the plot about the family banana farm and its economic challenges with a light touch. The cast, including Colin Kinchella, John Blair and Jorja Gillis, revelled in delivering a truly Bollywood-style show.

The other two scripts written by women, Coconut Woman by Maryanne Sam and A Little Piece of Ash by Megan Wilding, deal with different types of loss and grief. Sam’s script engages with the challenges of people who are part of the Torres Strait Islander diaspora going home and meeting strangers who are their family.

With the assistance of Andrea James as dramaturg, Kyle Morrison as director, and a fine sense of storytelling, Sam brings together people from very different backgrounds, revealing the tensions and challenges of finding mutual respect. Wilding, in a warm, sometimes humorous and sometimes poignant script, follows the journey of a young woman trying to deal with her mother’s death. Louise Corpus read the part of the dead mother with cheeky irony and gentle compassion.

The remaining two plays were Forty Nine Days a Week by Ken Canning and Some Secrets Should be Kept Secret by Glenn Shea. Canning’s piece is a grim text dealing with violence and racism in prisons and the brutality experienced by many Indigenous inmates. Nearly 30 years after the Royal Commission into Aboriginal deaths in custody, the need for prison reform is even more critical as the numbers of the dead increase with every passing year. Canning’s text is disturbingly topical.

Glenn Shea’s play is in the style of Australian gothic, with a strong sense of Aboriginal epistemologies. It is part of a set of four plays, each in a different style, that track points in the life of an Aboriginal man.

As well as the six readings of new Aboriginal work, the event included two international First Nation plays, Maria Gets a New Life by Cliff Cardinale from Turtle Island in Canada and Bless the Child by Hone Kouka from Aotearoa/New Zealand. There were also forums, humorous debates and the opportunity for Indigenous practitioners to network.

Most of the scripts read at the festival tell personal stories. Through the development process they move beyond the individual, or as Baird says, beyond a verbatim yarn, to another level of writing that uses art to reveal layers and resonances beyond the personal. I look forward to seeing the next stage for these works. The playwrights will now attempt to find further development through theatre companies. I hope they will.

These are all Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander stories and in many ways specific to that experience, but they are not about issues that can be relegated under the heading of Aboriginal problems. Stories dealing with grief, violence, poverty or struggling to deal with family conflicts and tragedies have something important to say to everyone.

Joyous, comic and grim: the best new Indigenous playwrights
Maryrose Casey, Associate professor, Monash University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Image: The Yellamundie Festival – photo by Zan Wimberley

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