Tag Archives: Aborigine

179: The Call

26 Oct

The Call is an adaptation by Bruce Myles of Martin Flanagan’s novel of the same name. With strong dance and movement motifs, it tells the story of Tom Wills,  sporting legend, AFL founder and lost soul.

The Call

The play is written with virtually no punctuation in a free-flowing, lyrical form that suggests poetry and dance. There are strong Indigenous references throughout with Tom participating in Indigenous dances and taking on the dingo as his totem. Reading the play I assumed there would be a revelation that Tom’s ancestry included an Aboriginal parent, but his links with Indigenous Australia were more tentative than that.

Wills was born in 1835 to a family with convict heritage, trying to prove themselves in a society that held onto all the class segregation of the old Empire. Young Wills was an astonishing athlete, something that would have made his old man very proud if he’d lived today. But in those days, sport wasn’t considered a gentlemanly occupation and Horatio Wills wanted his son educated inEnglandand working as a lawyer.

One of the things The Call captures best is the damage caused by never belonging and always having to prove yourself. Tom Wills had grown up playing with Aboriginal children on a property. They taught him their language, sports and dances and he incorporated them in his distinctive playing style.

Wills was a natural at cricket and would probably be remembered like Bradman if he hadn’t also rocked the establishment with his over-arm bowling, body-line balls and captainship of an Aboriginal cricket team.

ELLIS: Does it not occur to you that theBritish Empiremight not wish to be led by a colonial backwater

TOM: They’ll just have to catch up […]

Leadership is a fact not a title handed out at birth

In theCrimeayour sort of leadership led to men charging live cannon on horseback because some senile oaf with an inherited title told them to do so

ELLIS: This is too much Wills is a revolutionary

Wills had a reputation for being dangerous, enhanced no doubt by his drinking. Deciding that the Victorian cricket team was too soft, Wills made up a new game of football to toughen them up, the game that eventually turned into Aussie Rules.

At the height of his success (and outrage over his behaviour) Wills’s father took him on an expedition to Queensland, to set up a new property and teach him how to be a ‘proper’ man. The expedition stumbled into a land war between the local Aborigines and new settlers and Horatio Wills and 18 of their team were massacred. (The reprisals for the Aborigines were brutal.)

His father’s murder and its reprisals tipped Wills over the edge. Banished from ‘civilised’ society, alcoholic and paranoid, he killed himself when he was 44.

The Call is a play about sport and race. It’s a reminder of our history and a portrait of a brilliant and lonely man, caught between two worlds, unable to appease either of them.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: Could be played by a large cast or doubled with 5M, 2F

166: Box the Pony

23 Sep

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.

Box the Pony

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.

Publisher: Sceptre

Cast: 1F

122: Stolen

21 Jul

Jane Harrison’s Stolen brought tears to my eyes on the bus this morning. First commissioned in 1992, this is a play about the Stolen Generation, told through the voices of five Aboriginal children.


By using five characters, Harrison is able to reflect on the differences and similarities in experience. There’s the little girl who is repeatedly abused by the couples who take her out of the children’s home for a weekend ‘visit’ (how could this ever have been considered a good idea? Letting people come and pick a kid to take home for a weekend? Were authorities wilfully blind or just plain stupid?), there’s the boy who’s told his mum is dead while she writes to him every week, longing to hear from him, there’s the girl who’s taken from her mum and then has her kids taken from her, there’s a boy who manages to hold onto some of the stories and there’s a girl who’s adopted out and brought up white.

In her playwright’s note, Harrison says: “Numerous people – Koori and non-Koori – contributed their time, skills and a good chunk of their souls to make it happen. In the end Stolen took six years, four workshops and many tears to get to the stage.” Once on the stage, I am sure it has inspired many more tears as people hear and feel these stories for themselves.

The play is a series of vignettes, with all the cast playing multiple characters as they enact different parts of the children’s lives. For instance, in Ruby’s descent into madness:

AUTHORITY FIGURE: Clean for me, Ruby.
AUTHORITY FIGURE: Wash for me, Ruby.
AUTHORITY FIGURE: Cook for me, Ruby.
RUBY: Don’t need no family of me own.
AUTHORITY FIGURE: Scrub for me, Ruby.
AUTHORITY FIGURE: Nurse for me, Ruby.
AUTHORITY FIGURE: Mop for me, Ruby.
RUBY: Got enough to do.

As the scene progresses, the voices get nastier, turning into the sleaze, the arsehole and the lady as they force Ruby to her knees and abuse her.

Stolen is an important play. Some people won’t want to see it because they’ll recognise that it will be harrowing, but there is also humour and resilience. The issue of the Stolen Generations isn’t going to blow away with the sand, much as some people would like it to. It is part of our history and we need to shed tears over it before there is any hope of moving on.

SANDY: The land where my people come from is covered in red sand and in the old days, the women to try to stop the white men from raping them, would shove sand inside themselves. Anything to stop the men from raping them, anything. And that’s what my mother did, but it didn’t stop them and so I came along. My mother, she loved me, but she called me Sandy anyway. She sure had a sense of humour that one.

Stolen will be shown in Brisbane at QPAC this November.

Publisher: Currency Press

Cast: 3F, 2M