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The Future In Black And White

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The Future in Black and White

Aboriginality in Recent Australian Drama

by Katharine Brisbane, AM, Hon.D.Litt.

Publisher of Currency Press

There's nothing I would rather be

Than to be an Aborigine

and watch you take my precious land away.

For nothing gives me greater joy

than to watch you fill each girl and boy

with superficial existential shit.

Now you may think I'm cheeky

But I'd be satisfied

to rebuild your convict ships

and sail them on the tide.

I love the way you give me God

and of course the mining board,

for this of course I thank the Lord each day.

I'm glad you say that land rights wrong.

Then you should go where you belong

and leave me to just keep on keeping on.

This is one of the songs from Bran Nue Dae, a musical which emerged in 1989 from one of the most remote parts of Australia: the port of Broome on the North-West coast. The song itself has become an anthem for Aboriginal people: a rare unifying force for empowerment. Its quality has appealed equally to white Australians: its tune is infectious and celebratory, creating a tension with the words, which expresses both defiance of their situation as a colonised people; and an ironic self-accusation for accepting it.

Irony may not be a significant force in every nation's humour but it is the key to an understanding of the Australian character. Irony is both accusatory and conciliatory and the barbs in this song stab our consciences and at the same time make us laugh.

In the contemporary world, Bran Nue Dae is a significant expression of that historical irony of Australian race relations by which families were split apart and tribes deracinated in the name of self-improvement. It has also been the most uniting force in the beginnings of common understanding.

The author is Jimmy Chi, a musician of mixed blood, including Aboriginal, Chinese and Japanese; and the stage show evolved from the songs created by his band, the Kuckles, one of dozens of bands which play in the pubs in Broome.

The story is as silly as that of any grand opera. What audiences respond to is the way the play invites them in to share the joy, the outlook and the resilient humour; through the music, which is a felicitous conflation of every style ever heard on a transistor radio in the bungalows of Broome. Today Broome is a prosperous resort town with an international airport. But once it was the centre of Australia's pearl fishing industry, attracting Asian divers and fishermen and a good proportion of remittance men and other colourful characters. Its history probably contained a greater ethnic mixture than anywhere else in Australia until the mass immigration of the last half of this century. Jimmi Chi has celebrated the darker side of this history in his second musical, Corrugation Road (1996), which gathers the Aboriginal experience of drug-taking, child abuse and unsympathetic hospital care into a kaleidoscope of his own schizophrenic imagination.

Bran Nue Dae in 1989 was a turning point in the short history of Aboriginal writing for the theatre. Twenty years of evolution: in writers, political activists, actors, dancers, singers and song-writers, preceded it. It was, surprisingly, only in the 1960s that Aboriginal writers began to be published in numbers which could be recognised as a body of work. This occurred as part of a gathering force of activism by a politically aware post-war generation of Aborigines and of white young people, particularly university students. In 1961 Aborigines had finally been given the vote. In 1965 Northern Territory Aboriginal pastoral workers were awarded equal pay with whites; in 1966 the first major land-rights strike took place; and in 1967 a national referendum overwhelmingly voted in favour of transferring judicial responsibility for Aboriginal welfare from the states to the commonwealth government. Isolated protests over local issues, mainly of living conditions on reserves, became by degrees an organised civil rights movement which gained confidence from the parallel movement in the United States. Co-ordinated protest had so far been impeded by traditional tribal rivalries and the diversity of languages. Skirmishes, massacres and protests had been rural and isolated; and many of them shamefully buried in a conspiracy of silence. What we had from the 60s, by contrast, was a modern, open campaign led by urban leaders and using the weapons of politics and the mass media.

Encouraged by the the public statements, individual voices began to be heard. Poetry and song came first; drama followed. Within Aboriginal communities dance, song and story-telling are traditional and Aboriginals are by nature much more graceful performers than their Anglo-Saxon counterparts. The civil rights movement coincided - or rather shared the same roots as - the anti-British, anti-American, anti-Vietnam War nationalism that changed the politics of Australia in the late '60s and brought into existence, as a by-product, the Australian Council for the Arts, now the Australia Council. Its Aboriginal Arts Board has been an important source of funds for indigenous arts groups and for the development of individual talent. And the Board has been influential through its existence in plotting the direction of modern art and performance.

Now, after thirty years of growing confidence, our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists have reached the forefront of our arts. Thirty years ago few urban white Australians had ever seen a traditional Aboriginal painting - had rarely even seen an Aboriginal. Few whites knew anything of the Aboriginal way of life, with its complex social order and spirituality, its practical jokes, its ingenious survival skills and its talent for parody. We were not even aware of our own ignorance - until it was exposed by the revelations on stage and on television. Today Aboriginal drama is, at least in my view, the most important new Australian voice and one which will, in due course, be the most widely heard in other countries. Today Aboriginal painters exhibit in New York and Venice;

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