Type
Essay
Category
Aboriginal Australia
History

Coming through ceremony

The story goes that a writer, and wannabe singer, dancer and actor (who screamed like Screamin’ Jay Hawkins and pivoted like James Brown), and a real actor and wannabe director (you might know her from such TV shows as Prisoner, The Flying Doctors, and the cult film Little Miss Wonder1), met at the Black Playwright’s conference in 1989 in Canberra. They fell in love, talked politics, representation and storytelling, had a baby (well two – the second being Ilbijerri), fell out of love, and the rest is history. Well, that’s one story.

In 1991, spearheaded by Yorta Yorta, Wiradjuri and South Sea Islander actor Kylie Belling and Kuku and Erub writer John Harding, a group of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community members, actors, writers, artists, musicians, community organisers, students, workers in community-controlled organisations and an Elder, took the step of incorporating a theatre co-operative under the name Ilbijerri. Woiwurrung for ‘coming together for ceremony’, the name had been researched and suggested by Berigada storyteller and researcher Robert Mate-Mate, and permission was given to use it by Wurundjeri Elder Joy Murphy.

The group’s desire to create an Aboriginal theatre organisation echoed the long traditions of Aboriginal theatre being linked to community political and cultural aspirations, and a reflection of the role of active storytelling being interwoven into every aspect of Aboriginal life.

There were a number of reasons for Ilbijerri’s formation, a long history of theatrical performance in the founding members’ families; the influence of the National Black Playwright’s Conferences; and the need to tell our stories our way, as is our cultural obligation. This was reflected in the dearth of meaningful roles and stories in ‘Australia’s’ creative landscape. A landscape that prioritised the ‘Aboriginal story’ imposed by the settler state; a perpetual tale of dehumanisation, infantilisation, erasure and dependence tropes were attached to Aboriginal people. This narrative was necessary to the ongoing settler-colonialism that attempted and continues to attempt to destroy Aboriginal people and, along with it, our deep knowledges, in order to take hold and fully exploit Aboriginal lands.2 Storytelling, or passing on stories is the way we pass on culture, how we learn who we are and where we come from, our obligations and knowledges. It is central to who we are, how we make sense of the world and how to live in it.3

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre in Melbourne 

Before Ilbijerri there were many defining moments in Aboriginal performance in Melbourne. As people came off the missions and reserves, performers from sites of political activation like Cummeragunja and Lake Tyers, singers, musicians and dance troupes, were a much needed outlet from oppressive missionary and government control, for performers and community alike. As well cabarets and performances raised money for funeral funds and other social needs.

Among the political leaders who reformed the dormant Aborigines Advancement League to advocate on many issues were Yorta Yorta activist and entrepreneur Bill Onus and Yorta Yorta activist, athlete and spiritual leader Pastor Doug Nicholls. In 1951 the City of Melbourne celebrated the Centenary of Victoria and the Commonwealth Jubilee, 50 years since the federation of the states. The celebrations, intended to display Victoria’s maturity and unique identity, celebrated European culture alongside its growing ‘native’, as in people born in Australia of European heritage, cultures. Onus and Nicholls protested the exclusion of Aboriginal culture and developed and performed Out of the Dark, An Aboriginal Moomba which featured international artists, Murri tenor and activist Harold Blair and Murri and Torres Strait Islander cabaret and jazz singer Georgia Lee (Dulcie Pitt) and many Victorian based performers and community members. In two acts, the production was a reflection on cultural practices before contact, and contemporary expression of the 1950s, showing the ongoing links between the two.4

Founding Members

Looking at the founding members of Ilbijerri, you can see the influence of these early works, and the canon of Aboriginal written theatre in their life stories. As well as John Harding and Kylie Belling, the founding members were community controlled organisation administrator Bev Murray, Elder Eleanor Harding, musicians Ruby Hunter and Archie Roach, poet and broadcaster Lisa Bellear, writer and performer Maryanne Sam, artist Destiny Deacon, arts administrator and broadcaster Janina Harding, artist Clinton Nain, actor Stan Yarramunua and and myself.

My mother Patricia Corowa, who was the first woman President of the Aborigines Advancement League and worked alongside Meriam activist, actor and writer Bob Maza and Wiradjuri activist and leader Bruce McGuinness, had a season on the stage with the inimitable Steve Dodd, alongside Googie Withers and Ed Devereux in Desire of the Moth at the Comedy Theatre in Melbourne in 1966.

Another founding member, Eleanor Harding, was the mother of other founders John Harding, Destiny Deacon, Janina Harding and Clinton Nain, and the second mother to Lisa Bellear. Eleanor was a community worker, a founding member of many Aboriginal community controlled organisations and looked after young people coming out of institutions to find work, education and their families.

Eleanor also had a theatrical turn, in Nindethana Theatre’s production of The Cherry Pickers, Kevin Gilbert’s seminal play. Renowned as the first written Aboriginal play,5 it was performed in Melbourne in 1973. With the ground breaking proviso by Gilbert that it could only be performed by Aboriginal people, the play was cast from members of the Aboriginal community who worked in its Aboriginal community controlled organisations. It was seeing this play as a young woman that spoke to another founding member, Bev Murray, whose grandfather Uncle Doug Nicholls agitated for representation through Out of the Dark in 1951. Bev has conveyed that Nindethana’s production opened her eyes to the possibilities to create change through theatre by voicing our own stories.6

Another founding member, Kylie Belling was the first Aboriginal graduate from the Victorian College of the Arts in Drama, and was quickly cast in a guest role on Prisoner with Justine Saunders, and a regular role on The Flying Doctors on Australian television. Kylie was the only professionally trained theatre creative among the founding members.

This group of founding members illustrates the grounding of Ilbijerri in the community – that the people who were interested and supportive and contributing, came from all walks of life, not just theatre, and believed in theatre as a tool for change in terms of getting the truth out there, changing perceptions, changing representation and telling the stories we wanted and needed to tell, as self-determining cultural agents.

Aboriginal Affairs and arts policy landscape shaped by Aboriginal activists

Leaders like Pastor Doug Nicholls and Bill Onus at the Aborigines Advancement League who produced Out of the Dark, along with many people all over the country including Eleanor Harding, Bob Maza and Patricia Corowa, had organised for recognition, equal rights and land rights through the Federal Council of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders (FCAATSI) and its 10 year campaign for the 1967 referendum. The referendum sought federal oversight of discriminatory laws that controlled the lives of Aboriginal people, through incoherent and complex legislation across states.

Following the successful referendum, when the federal government abrogated its powers to enact unifying legislation on behalf of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people back to the states, many Aboriginal people became disillusioned with governments’ preparedness to act for the benefit of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
In 1972 the Aboriginal Embassy, in some ways an act of theatre in itself, was established on the lawns of Parliament House in Canberra the day after Prime Minister Billy McMahon said his government would never enact Aboriginal land rights. Gary Foley argues that the Embassy helped the Whitlam government gain power. As Opposition Leader, Whitlam visited the Embassy and was challenged by Paul Coe on the Labor Party’s position on Land Rights. Enacting Land Rights then became a Labor Party policy, and with the goodwill of the yes vote on the referendum, combined with lack of action from the Liberal government and the education of thousands of visitors to the Embassy, Foley argues, the Embassy helped bring the Whitlam government to power.7

When the Whitlam government came to power in 1973, a federal Department of Aboriginal Affairs and the Australia Council for the Arts were established, and a cultural flowering started when funds began to flow to Aboriginal Affairs and the arts alike. The Aboriginal Arts Board was made up of artists and activists including waterside worker and longtime Aboriginal rights campaigner Chicka Dixon, another proponent of the Referendum campaign. Places like the Pram Factory formed and supported Nindethana Theatre created by Bob Maza and Stolen Generations survivor, actor and musician Jack Charles in Melbourne. Nindethana would produce groundbreaking works like Jack Charles is Up and Fighting and The Cherry Pickers.

In 1989, Bangarra was formed from graduates of the Aboriginal and Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT), Boomalli Aboriginal Arts Cooperative concentrated the burgeoning talent of artists in all art forms and writers across the country were gaining prominence. This cultural wave was nurtured by the Aboriginal Arts Board of the Australia Council, when the Hawke government appointed political stalwart Chicka Dixon as Chair, who in turn appointed Gary Foley as its first Aboriginal Director in 1983. Applying principles of Aboriginal community control, they reformed the board’s work to ensure funding reached Aboriginal communities and artists directly and employing Aboriginal staff for the board. They had a clear focus on supporting urban, political artforms to communicate to the rest of the world, who Aboriginal people really were.8

Getting the show on the road

Ilbijerri was formed in the same cultural wave in the continuum of cultural proliferation in the arts. Some founding members of Ilbijerri, Janina and John Harding, attended the first Black Playwrights’ Conference in 1987 in Canberra. Convened by stalwarts of the industry, who were also political leaders, this conference was key to underpinning the next wave of Aboriginal theatre which became organised into community controlled theatre collectives around the continent like Ilbijerri.

The conferences were convened by Woppaburra actor Justine Saunders, possibly the only Aboriginal women on television consistently throughout the ’70s and ’80s, and Biripi actor and director Brian Syron, Elders of the theatre and storytelling, as well as notable political activists and artists Bob Maza and Noonuccal activist and poet Oodgeroo Noonuccal who also figured large in the proceedings. The second Black Playwrights’ Conference in 1989 in Sydney was attended by John Harding, Kylie Belling, Janina Harding and Kim Kruger. The conferences were a deep source of inspiration and encouragement of Aboriginal community controlled theatre and performance. John Harding had written a radio play called Black Man and Sobbin’, about two Aboriginal caped crusaders who were intent on getting their mob into higher education, and workshopped it at the conference. With the inspiration of the playwrights’ conferences, he started writing Up the Road and thinking about setting up a theatre co-operative.

The lack of meaningful roles for Aboriginal performers and writing opportunities for Aboriginal writers was shown by Ilbijerri’s advocacy, early in its formation, around the remake of the TV series, Boney. The 1990’s remake of the 70’s TV series, was based on the series by Arthur Upfield. Upfield, a white writer, created the character Boney, or Napoleon Bonapart. The ‘half-caste’9 Detective Inspector used his black tracker skills to solve mysteries in almost 30 books over a 30 year period. For the 1990’s television series Grundy Productions cast non Aboriginal actor Cameron Daddo as Boney. The original TV series featured New Zealand actor James Laurenson in the lead role and included some of the giants of the Aboriginal cause, like Yorta Yorta – Woiwurrung activist, storyteller and writer Burnum Burnum (Harry Penrith)10 and the inimitable Yolgnu actor, dancer, musician and storyteller David Gulpilil.11 But by the 1990s Aboriginal people had had enough of misrepresentation of ‘Aboriginal’ roles, written by white writers and played by white actors.

Ilbijerri members joined with the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance (MEAA) to protest the casting of Daddo in the role, prompting a response from Grundy that they could not find any Aboriginal actors in Melbourne, despite the likes of Tony Briggs being on Neighbours, Gary Foley having a turn on A Country Practice and many others like Yorta Yorta character actors Warren Owens (Wozza Onus) and Jack Charles having a long list of TV credits. To avoid the burgeoning controversy created by Ilbijerri and MEAA’s agitation, Grundy then changed the character to a white man, with an Aboriginal Uncle (played by Burnum Burnum), who taught him the skills of black tracking. While it’s possible for an Aboriginal man to have a white nephew, the scenario simply extracts Indigenous knowledge and bestows it on the white character without all the political context of the Uncle’s and his community’s situation, resulting in unrealised characters and shallow storytelling.

While Ilbijerri continued to fight these causes, the considerable administrative tasks to establish the cooperative took the voluntary work and skills of members like Bev Murray, Maryanne Sam and John Harding, and drew on the goodwill of Aboriginal community organisations like the Aboriginal Housing Board, as well as Northcote Uniting Church to provide office space before Ilbijerri could secure its own. Early support came from philanthropy like the Myer and Stegley Foundations, however arts funding was difficult to secure in an environment where a proven track record of successful productions and creatives with production credits in project management and directing were barriers to the emerging organisation. We had to prove to the powers that held the funding purse strings that we had the skills.

A strategic alliance with Melbourne Workers Theatre was formed to produce the play, Nidjera. Ilbijerri members, under the auspice and guidance of Steve Payne, Patricia Cornelius, Julie Hickson and Leslie Hall, commissioned Archie Weller to write the play, appointed Kylie Belling director, who cast a mix of seasoned actors and community members including Shane Connor, Destiny Deacon, Kate Gillick, Gavin Moore, Annie Young, Mick Fuller and Tony Gorrie. The production opened in Victoria at the Fitzroy Stars Gym in Gertrude Street Fitzroy, and toured country Victoria.

Nidjera proved Ilbijerri members were capable of commissioning, mounting, casting, directing and touring a professional production and managed to break through the elitist processes that kept Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people out of the funded arts scene and from telling our own stories. Remember, this was only thirty years ago. This production gave Ilbijerri the credentials to gain funding under its own steam, and members quickly moved on to produce Up the Road.

This began the living out of ideas of Aboriginal community control. Aboriginal self-determination and community control were principles that most of Ilbijerri’s founding members ascribed to, as members of and workers in Aboriginal community controlled organisations. So overarching principles of Aboriginal self-determination and community control were no brainers. Ilbijerri would be run by a board of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, with an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander Artistic Director and aspirations for an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander General Manager. Its creatives would be Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander writers, performers and directors, telling our stories on our terms.

Up the Road brought audiences into a world of the very real lived experience of Aboriginal communities, the tensions of working as an Aboriginal public servant in Canberra, juxtaposed against the needs and aspirations of their home community. Presented in the year of the handing down of the report of the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody, the play also illustrated to audiences, the devastating impact of these deaths on Aboriginal communities.

The juxtaposition of the ‘Aboriginal story’ written by non-Aboriginal writers and produced by non-Aboriginal producers, which created characters and stories that were shallow, implausible and left audiences unconvinced, with the real, gritty, convincing stories from Aboriginal writers and the concerns of their communities was stark. Our stories centred on what is important to us, the connection between land and people, how that is held together in Aboriginal world views, and how settler-colonialism continuously seeks to destroy this.

Aboriginal community controlled storytelling

Once Up the Road showed the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander community what was possible, Ilbijerri started researching and developing its next major work, Stolen. The play was originally called the Lost Children because that is how the community talked about the Stolen Generations at the time. It was being developed while people were testifying to the National Inquiry into the Separation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from Their Families, which resulted in the Bringing Them Home Report of 1997. As this inquiry was underway, the Aboriginal community shifted the naming from the ‘Lost Children’ to ‘Stolen Generations’ to more accurately reflect the systemic experiences of families and communities, that children were not lost out of negligence, but were forcibly removed, impacting a generation or more, showing the systemic forces at play.

The play took six years to research, write and produce. Ilbijerri advertised for a writer and Muruwari woman Jane Harrison took on the role, while Kuku Yulanji woman Antoinette Braybrook was engaged to conduct research with the Stolen Generations alongside board members. The play was workshopped with actors and community members. Stolen was incredibly important in educating over a million audience members both here and overseas about the true history of forced separations of families as a government policy. This history was denied for a long time. Telling the story through theatre, Ilbijerri has played its role in informing and changing the attitudes of audiences, and wider society, on this issue that impacts every Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander family. Just as importantly, Aboriginal and Torres Strait audiences were also impacted. Often they did not distinguish between the stage and their real life. When performed in public, Stolen Generations would often commune with cast members, talking about their experiences, seeing the performance reflecting theirs. Stolen was also a vehicle for catharsis for survivors as well as educational for the Australian public to understand this history and its impact.

Ilbijerri further developed some of its Aboriginal community control principles, based on Aboriginal world views, ways of being, knowing and doing, while creating Stolen. The play would have multiple voices to demonstrate the diversity of Indigenous perspectives, over telling a singular story, focusing on an individual as often seen in western storytelling. This approach meant that nuances of experiences and the different ways removal impacted different people could be platformed: communicating the complexity of the impact on the community, telling the truth, having it heard, dealing with reconnection, mental health, loss of cultural connections and ongoing trauma faced by families and their communities.

Basing the play on testimonies also meant a direct voice from the lived experience of the people impacted, arguably more powerful than imagined characters like Boney with no connection to reality.

Other intentional practices included billing actors in alphabetical order to avoid a hierarchy of stars. Rather than the players, the story was seen as the main point. Similarly, as many cast members as possible were included in the marketing materials, rather than embracing western traditions of promoting one or two marquee, or name stars, who will draw a paying crowd. This served to both counter practices of erasure that were happening with productions like Bony, as well as to counter stereotypical ideas of who we are and what we look like as people.

Beyond this, there are numerous productions that are a testament to Ilbijerri’s endurance. In my time as General Manager we produced multiple seasons of Stolen, Rainbow’s End, Headhunter, Chopped Liver, produced Seven Deadly Gins in prison, and Natives getting Restless Funny, a first foray into performance in the Melbourne International Comedy Festival, where only a handful of Aboriginal stand-up comics had appeared before. The work has changed over time reflecting the artistic vision of various Artistic Directors and the creatives they work with. Plays like Foley! and Jack Charles v The Crown, as one person shows, show the shift from the multiple voices while continuing to platform important issues for Aboriginal people and connection to country. Corranderrk, a verbatim play based on the 1881 Victorian Parliamentary Inquiry testimonies into the living conditions at the reserve, was also an important work, given that Ilbijerri is named from Wurundjeri language and operates on Wurundjeri country.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Peoples have the longest continuing culture in the world, and now Ilbijerri is the longest continuous running Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre company. It is difficult for many to grasp the ongoing impact of colonisation on Indigenous peoples and the trauma and disruption that has confronted this chain of continuing culture. Storytelling is central to who we are. A continuing tradition this old needs time and space to heal from colonial wounds. Ilbijerri can offer this time and space and concentrate on the stories that matter. To reiterate, reflect, reestablish our ways of being and doing in the world.

Nothing just happens for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Every gain that has been made has been hard fought for. Aboriginal Theatre throughout history has been about protest and representation, from ‘Out of the Dark’, to Nindethana, to The Black Theatre, to Bony, to Stolen, to Foley! to Corranderrk.

In my time working at Ilbijerri I saw the struggle to produce work, and the constant tensions of writing the impact of colonialism, the trauma plays, in contrast to wanting to hear good stories, uplifting stories, stories that tell us who we are. I know how exhausting it is to try and fund, platform and attract audiences to theatre. It is an expensive art form that is labour intensive. There is always a tension between valuing our artists properly, paying people their worth, and finding the funds to do so. This limits the amount and type of work that can be done. And so there is always disappointment that you are not fulfilling the expectations of a non-homogenous community. This leads to issues of financial support which every truly community controlled organisation faces. But maybe that’s a conversation that needs to happen in the next ten years of Ilbijerri. How to decolonize ‘our’ own arts organisations and release them from the institutional structures of a corporate entity with a democratically elected board. And in the constant project of decolonising, revisiting the Blak Bums on Seats research that identified barriers to access for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences as a way to return to the original principles of making theatre for us, by us.

This can be brought into some kind of realm of feasibility by being clear about what we stand for, and proving it in our work. It would make sense then, that an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander theatre organisation would have strong guiding principles about what an Aboriginal world view looks like. This too would be explicitly articulated in the work, how the work is made, and how the work is promoted, in order for communities, collaborators and audiences to understand our work and why we do it.

If we are to embrace the genealogy of black theatre described here that held an overt political purpose, demonstrated in street style performance, theatrical protests, or bringing to light important issues for our communities to push for change, Ilbijerri can be a conduit for agitating, education and organizing. It could, for example, be providing another way for Aboriginal communities to understand whether the Victorian Treaty process is in their best interests – outside government and legal industry controlled spaces. It could be doing the same around prison abolition or reform arguments, and the return of crown land to sovereign originals. Whatever the issues, a well communicated position, would make its relevance to Aboriginal people and communities clear and honour Ilbijerri’s body of work and endurance.

The story goes that a community of politically educated, community minded and involved storytellers, young, old, radical, respectable, bigshots, writers, musicians, photographers, administrators, poets and painters set up a theatre cooperative to tell stories their way. Stories that meant something to them. Important stories. Stories of Black Deaths in Custody, of the Stolen Generations, of standing up for land, and fighting to remember. They made plays, travelled the world, talked politics, representation and storytelling, their babies grew up and made art, talked politics and culture and told stories about looking after the land, looking after the people. And that’s not the end of the story. Pass it on.

 

Endnotes

1. Little Miss Wonder, 1995, Destiny Deacon
2. Patrick Wolfe described settler-colonialism as a structure not an event that destroys Indigenous peoples and replaces them with occupying settlers to justify dispossession of land.
3. Indigenous scholars globally uphold storytelling as the carrier of culture. See Alexis Wright, Leanne Simpson, Bessarab and Ng’andu, Kovach.
4. See Kleinart.
5. Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers was written and first performed in 1968 and published in 1988.
6. Kim Kruger recollection of a conversation with Bev Murray when Kim started as General Manager in 2002.
7. See ‘A reflection on the first thirty days of the embassy’ by Gary Foley in The Aboriginal Tent Embassy: Sovereignty, Black Power, Land Rights and the State.
8. See (Kelly & Rowse, Australia Council)
9. Derogatory term originating from the pseudo-science of Eugenics, embraced by government Aboriginal assimilation policies.
10. See National Portrait Gallery entry, Burnum Burnum.
11. See National Film & Sound Archive entry, David Gulpilil.

Bibliography

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https://www.abc.net.au/radionational/programs/awaye/introducing-miss-georgia-lee/3671178

 

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Kim Kruger is a researcher with Moondani Balluk Academic Unit at Victoria University and an associate researcher for ARC Future Fellows, Dr Tracey Banivanua Mar (LaTrobe University) and Dr Kalissa Alexeyeff (University of Melbourne) with their projects ‘Melbourne in the Pacific’, and ‘Labour Circuits in the South Pacific’.

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