Leah Purcell’s Box the Pony is an autobiographical tale, one that I can’t imagine ever being performed by another actor. She wrote it with the help of Scott Rankin and is honest in the introduction about the difficulties that came up with getting a white man to write the first draft of her indigenous story.
She writes that when she saw the first draft, she hated it. That she told Rankin, “You’re a white male and this now needs a touch of me, the Murri woman humour” and that that was how she started writing. Apparently things got uncomfortable between them and they had to distance themselves from each other until after the opening night, when they could relax and realise they both just wanted the best for the play.
It’s strange to read a play script that is intended for only one actor. I don’t mean this in a one-person show sort of way but in that this is a playscript that is an archival product and a memoir and doesn’t seem to be intended for any one else to ever produce or perform. It’s Leah Purcell‘s story and has been written for her to perform. (I’ve just looked into this and apparently other people have played the role, in high school drama, etc. – but I’m leaving the previous statement as it’s my first response to reading the script.)
LEAH: [picking up a garbage bag, twisting it and throwing it on the stage] Up’ome’der shopping was different for us [thump] there’d be a thump on the verandah. ‘Thanks, St Vinnie’s.’ Mum would yell, ‘Let’s go shopping!’ [Looking through the bag] We go for the good stuff, we had our dignity. Then we’d chuck the bag on a friend’s verandah down the road [thud] and so on down the street [thump]. Later you’d see a kid wearing the garbage bag with the corners cut out. Gunnar, gunnar … They really poor, eh.
As a playscript, Box the Pony is dynamic, engaging and cleverly written. One-person shows can become didactic or overly revealing, more so when they are biographical as Scott Rankin mentions in his introduction to the play: “One of the difficulties of biographical material is that it is easy for the audience to be offended, or feel embarrassed at times – naturally recognising they don’t have the depth of relationship with the performer that can sustain this level of intimate information. It can be like spending an hour with someone you’ve just met while they pour their heart out to you.”
Cleverly, Box the Pony sidesteps these traps by creating another character, Steff. There’s Leah on stage talking about her life, laughing and joking with the audience, and then there’s Leah talking about her friend and enacting some of the things that happened to Steff when she was growing up.
It’s only towards the end of the play that the audience realises that Steff and Leah are the same person, that the domestic violence and despair Steff suffered was actually suffered by Leah. But throughout the play there’s the cheerful, fiery voice of Leah, reminding the audience that she’s a fighter, that she’s not going to take any shit lying down.
LEAH: In Woollahra, people do coffee on the footpath. Now this is hard for a little myall black gin to understand. Because up’ome’der you drink on footpath because you’re not allowed into the pub.
These gubba fellas just don’t do coffee on the footpath, their dogs, which they treat like children, do gunung! That’s filthy. That’s stinkin’, thas dirty that! And they got a cheek to say blackfella dirty!
Having Leah as herself now, a survivor, introducing, commenting on and playing all the other characters in her life gives a sense of perspective and the chance for the play to be both emotional and reflective. She describes the moment when Flo (Steff’s mother/her mother) was dying and making plans for her funeral:
FLO: You make it real flash, Elvis Presley ‘Inspiration’. I want ‘Amazing Grace’ coming in, ‘Lead Me’ when they’re taking me out, and ‘How Great Thou fucking Art’ when they’re putting me in the ground.
LEAH: She was a Christian lady.
FLO: And I don’t want them bastards throwin’ dirt on my coffin either, they’ve been doing that all my life. I want fresh gum tips, new leaves from an old tree.
Leah’s story is inspirational and her bravery in putting it into a play is immense. There is no skirting around the dark issues or her own behaviour. As a memoir and a book, Box the Pony is beautiful. I wish I had seen it in production.