Last night at the opening of Queensland Theatre Company’s 7 Stages of Grieving, I made a big statement that I don’t really write about theatre. Not because I don’t enjoy it; rather it’s because I enjoy it too much to spend a whole performance trying to remember what I want to say about it. But then I saw the show and my brain went into overdrive.
There are so many places I could take this piece right now. Discussions around family ties, the differences in Aboriginal theatre vs mainstream theatre, Australian politics, Brisbane’s arts scene, the benefit of a good script…lots of tangents I’m tempted to go off on. I could even write about the play itself, I suppose!. But mostly I keep coming back to something that’s been rolling around in my head for a while now, which is this:
Australia really shot itself in the foot when it decided that indigenous cultures had nothing to contribute to modern society. I mean, really. I spent twelve years in the school system of this country and another four in university, primarily studying art, literature, drama and social sciences yet, other than a bit about Captain Cook and a Rainbow Serpent, I learned nothing about indigenous culture. Only thirty years ago, twenty even, the society I lived in didn’t actually believe indigenous people had anything to offer of significant beauty. Just dot paintings and digeridoos. At the end of year twelve I couldn’t have named one indigenous artist, writer or poet. I could have named Ernie Dingo and Yothu Yindi but only in passing, and certainly not with any serious consideration being given to what they may or may not have contributed to society. That seems like a colossal waste of an education. Everything I now know, which still isn’t much, I have learned as I’ve found myself naturally drawn time and time again to the colours and rhythms of indigenous arts practice.
Ancient tribes with their supposed primitive societies and oral traditions were what provided the world with its mysteries. They are what gave us the layers, the mysticisms and spiritual depths within which we still find value in life. I’m no big fan of religion and fallacy, but without the rituals and relics of past people’s attempts to make sense of the world, our collective history would be a whole lot less interesting. The alternative folklore of American Indians, the Mayans, southern Slavs, Ancient Greeks and Romans, Incas, Aztecs, Egyptian pharaohs, Ancient Chinese and Mesopotamians…collectively, they created us. And right here at our fingertips is Aboriginal Australia, the oldest continuing culture in the world, whose myths and legends of the world’s creation hold much more relevance to modern Australian culture than any religion the First and Second Fleets may have brought along with them. What sort of idiot doesn’t take advantage of all that history, all that knowledge? Well…we know the uncomfortable answer to that question.
Fortunately it’s a culture that continues to survive despite the ravages and repressions it endured. Their stories continue to resonate despite their languages being under threat of extinction, and their art still pulsates with the vibrations of the land that inspired it. As younger artists are coming of age they are pushing it forward with courage, fresh ideas and confidence. They are demanding to be noticed the way their ancestors weren’t able to, and what they are creating is vibrant and unique. Equally exciting is that younger generations of non-Indigenous Australians aren’t just receptive to it; they’re supportive of it, inspired by it and often prefer it to the homogenised shit we’ve been consuming for years. We’re finally realising that a culture with such strong foundations in storytelling and visual representation might just have something to teach us about art and performance today.
As a writer I know what it’s like to carry a story inside me that I don’t feel able to tell. I can’t fathom how it feels to be just one heartbeat in a whole culture feeling that same way. The burden of those untold stories must be immense; we all know how hard it is to move forward when we don’t feel like our voice has been heard. Yet rather than crumbling under the pressure, they’re thriving, and the Australian arts scene is the beneficiary. Bangara Dance Theatre, Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu, the Tjanpi Desert Weavers, the artists of Utopia and the Western & Far Western Deserts, Dan Sultan, Tony Albert, Danie Mellor, Tracey Moffat, Christian Thompson, Deborah Mailman…contemporary artists making ancient stories relevant and forcing us to listen.
The 7 Stages of Grieving, to return to where I started, was written by Deborah Mailman and Wesley Enoch 20 years ago. It has been updated slightly – political references, the inclusion of Kevin Rudd’s “Sorry” speech, better staging and technological advancements in lighting and sound. For the most part though, the play has remained the same. I’d like to say it’s entirely due to the writing, which to a certain extent it is, but mostly it’s because when it comes to Indigenous policy, nothing much has changed. A line in the play refers to a man of 48 being old and therefore close to death. It didn’t take long for the laughter to die away pitifully as it occurred to the audience that with a average life expectancy of just 69 years for Aboriginal men, confronting your mortality at 48 isn’t really that absurd. It’s not a perfect piece of theatre, but it’s good. And visually it’s stunning. I wish I could have taken a picture of the stage, with its circles of sand glowing in the footlights. At times it seemed as though actress Chenoa Deemal was walking through one of those canvases I love so much. It was a lovely reminder of how these stories are all interwoven.
Today is National Close the Gap Day, where the focus is on attempting real change in lifting that aforementioned life expectancy. Much is written about the myriad of ways in which involvement in the arts is good for our health. Is it possible that empowering Indigenous Australia through recognition of the huge contribution they are making to our cultural landscape might be a great place to start?
Perhaps then when 7 Stages of Grieving is next due a rewrite, there might be more than just a prime minister’s name that needs changing.