Blak Arts

In recent weeks I’ve been following a number of distinct threads relating to Indigenous performing arts in Australia. The status of Indigenous actors on Australian television was the subject of a recent article in The Age (“A pale limitation,” March 29, 2009) featuring the man who has perhaps had the most success in breaking through the barriers of race and type-casting in recent years, Aaron Pederson. Pederson had a small role in the miniseries Heartland, itself a groundbreaking 1993 television event that starred Ernie Dingo and Cate Blanchett. He went on to become a mainstay of the series Water RatsWildside, and City Homicide. He has received critical acclaim for the film My Brother Vinnie as well as for his role as the embattled lawyer discovering his Aboriginal roots in The Circuit. But according to The Age, Pederson is “acutely aware of being a lone figure.” But Pederson’s success and his recognition is almost an anomaly among Indigenous actors on the small screen, especially in his ability to go beyond the typecasting that has dogged David Gulpilil and, to a lesser extent, Ernie Dingo.Outside the world of the visual arts, the visibility of Indigenous artists in Australia often barely clears the horizon. A recent publication in the series Platform Papers: Quarterly Essays on the Performing Arts addresses this issue squarely. Hilary Glow and Katya Johanson interviewed eighteen prominent artists working in dance and theatre to produceYour Genre is Black’: Indigenous Performing Arts and Policy (Currency House, Platform Papers no. 19, 2009). This slim volume serves as an overview of the history and the current state of Indigenous performing arts, looking at the challenges practitioners face in both the community and mainstream worlds.Most recently, ABC Radio’s Awaye! broadcast an interview this weekend with Wesley Enoch on the question of whether there is a need for an National Indigenous Theatre Company (NITC), which was also the subject of a story in the Sydney Morning Herald on March 24, 2009, “No more fading to black.

As soon as the subject of Enoch’s call for the creation of a National Indigenous Theatre Company enters the conversation, the word “controversy” follows almost immediately. The Morning Herald quoted Sam Cook of Yirra Yaakin as saying “If Wesley wants his own theatre company, why doesn’t he be honest and say so, instead of professing it to be something else? It looks to me like this is Wesley’s grab for power.” Enoch, perhaps stung by such remarks, commented on Awaye! that the opposition to the idea of NITC is “amazing” and countercharged that some people (naming no names) would rather abstain from the discussion than build a positive proposal and enter into a focused and productive debate. 

There are certainly grounds aplenty for such a debate. The picture that Glow and Johanson paint in ‘Your Genre is Black’ is one of contradictions. Much Indigenous dance and theatre arises from and serves the needs of individual, small communities, and as such, reflects local priorities. While community organizations provide the outlet for much creativity, they also have a limited reach. Such groups can serve as a focal point for pride in the performers’ heritage, but at the same time restrict the chances to communicate that pride to others. The potential to create change and to energize awareness may flourish, but it runs the risk of suffocating.

Local companies are sometimes driven by the dreams and talents of an individual or a small group for whom the work of theatre satisfies a profound creative impulse. But without significant funding and without the ability to move beyond a restricted horizon, what becomes of these individuals? How can their creativity be nourished, their growth as artists be assured? Too often, it seems, they burn out from the pressure. Or the talent stagnates for want of encouragement, training, and opportunity for growth. There may be no real careers for such individuals.

Similarly, artistry thrives when it is challenged and critiqued. And yet constructive criticism and the growth it engenders may be blunted by a sort of political correctness that dares not apply rigorous standards to Indigenous theatre. Community standards and mainstream standards may differ widely, and the artist who tries to serve both may end up failing both.

The most convincing argument in favor of the NITC that Enoch (photo, right, by Quentin Jones) put forth in the Awaye! interview was the need to preserve the canon of Indigenous theatrical works, not simply on printed pages but as living theatrical performances. A corollary argument was the need to provide such works with broad exposure by allowing them the opportunity to tour both nationally and internationally. Indeed, the two arguments are mutually reinforcing. How long, Enoch asks, has it been since audiences saw a live performance of Jimmy Chi’s Bran Nue Dae, or Jack Davis’s trilogy The First-Born (No SugarThe Dreamers, and Barungin) or Bob Merritt’s The Cake Man? A more recent production like Tony Briggs’s The Sapphires(which Enoch directed) wowed audiences at the Victorian State Theatre and at the Belvoir Street Theatre in Sydney almost five years ago, won praise and awards, and is only now making its way to Perth for a revival at the Black Swan State Theatre Company.

Enoch acknowledges the role and importance of the state theatre companies, and insists that a successful national company would need to work in concert with them, rather than in competition. To those who claim that an NITC would pauperize the state companies, he replies that the funding sources would be different, with 80% of the money coming from the Commonwealth rather than the states (though he admits there are no promises on this score). More importantly, he notes, it is a truism that no enterprise gets more money to do what it is already doing. In order to augment the total bucket of resources available for Indigenous theatre in Australia, it is necessary to dream of new enterprises and expanded horizons. This could include raising funds from private philanthropic sources.

Additionally, a national company might be truly national in the manner in which the National Theatre of Scotland operates: rather than settling itself in one location, the Scottish company sets up shop wherever there is promise, a new initiative to be developed and nurtured. A National Indigenous Theatre Company wouldn’t have to exist in Canberra, and the fear that Canberra would suck the life out of regional theatre must be met head on.

Both Enoch and Glow and Johanson point out that money for the regional and community operations is becoming scarce; Glow and Johanson are particularly good in documenting the troubled financial history of Indigenous theatre and the current threats to existing models. Enoch would argue that the NITC could lift all boats by bringing new interest as well as new resources into play. 

A national theatre directed at large, ambitious projects should generate pride and enthusiasm at the local level. Ideally, it would enrich the possibility for theatre that is responsive to local needs, whether that be cultural survival, rehabilitation programs in prisons, or a nurturing of nascent talent. Enoch also proposes that the national company been overseen by four bodies: a council of elders entrusted to oversee cultural protocols; a committee of directors charged with making the machinery of management operate efficiently; a council of artists to direct programming; and a “council of champions” who who undertake fund-raising activities.

‘Your Genre is Black’ is clearly if not quite overtly sympathetic to Enoch’s position, but Glow and Johanson are scrupulous in presenting the arguments that support continued development and funding for state and community based theatrical companies. It is an excellent introduction to the issues, and a good history lesson that helps to put Enoch’s zeal into perspective. In the end, I found myself swayed by Enoch’s argument on Awaye! much more than I was by Glow and Johanson’s book–which is not to criticize the latter. Enoch speaks with a genuine ardor for his cause, with a visionary enthusiasm that made me wonder if his critics were seeing a tall poppy rather than a prophet. 

Enoch is right at least in saying that it is important for the debate to continue out in the open. And Glow and Johanson have furnished an important and cogent reference that will be indispensable to those who wish to take part in that debate.

The question of audience is central to much of ‘Your Genre is Black’ : is Indigenous theatre primarily meant for Indigenous audiences? And if so, what happens if it tries to move into the mainstream? These thoughts were much in my mind when I stumbled, entirely coincidentally, into a realm of literature where I almost never venture: the Young Adult Novel.A recent feature story (“Culture not colour,” April 3, 2009) from the BBC Radio featured Nukunu writer Jared Thomas, characterizing his fictions as describing “a world where white can be black, and black can be into hip hop, cricket and country & western, as well as ceremony and ancient ‘dreaming’ stories.” Thomas is a lecturer in Aboriginal Studies at the Unaipon School of the University of South Australia. His theatrical CV includes Flash Red Ford, which toured to Uganda and Kenya, and Love, Land and Money at the Adelaide Fringe Festival.Intrigued, I did a little research on Thomas, and was able to put my hands on a copy of his debut novel, Sweet Guy (IAD Press, 2005). It is in many ways a conventional coming-of-age story about an eighteen year old boy from a broken home who surfs with his best mate until he goes off to university. There he struggles a bit with his studies, has a doomed love affair, and tries to sort out his past (a stormy relationship with his father) and his future (including true love and forgiveness). 

Sweet Guy struck me as “Australian”: there’s too much sex and beer and a bit of ganja for it to make it past the bulwarks of moral rectitude in the USA (irony intended). But it didn’t strike me as “Aboriginal.” While Flash Red Ford addressed racism in land-owning and Thomas’s work in progress Calypso Summersdeals directly with a youth trying to connect to his cultural roots in the Aboriginal country north of Adelaide, Sweet Guy is almost “raceless.” Michael, the narrator-protagonist, might equally well be white or Indigenous, and I suspect that this is a deliberate piece of artistry on Thomas’s part. Although the story itself looks none too original from my perspective on the far side of fifty, the book’s notable strength is that Australian boys of either white or Indigenous ancestry can probably connect with it and identify with Michael. It manages to sidestep the question of whether Aboriginal literature should or must address either the community or the mainstream.

(In a footnote to this footnote, I would mention that I was able to borrow this book from the G. R. Little Library at Elizabeth City State University, one of the historically black colleges in my home state of North Carolina, serves the poor seaboard of the state, and which is also located near some of the best surfing on the east coast of the United States.)

An underlying point is that there need not be a distinction–a necessary distinction–in the arts between Anglo and Indigenous culture. There is, as T. S. Eliot phrased it, traditionand the individual talent. They come together in the work of art, as has been amply demonstrated in the visual arts over the past quarter century and more. In his BBC interview, Thomas talks about the thrill and pride of being an Indigenous Australian watching the quintessentially Anglo sport of cricket being championed by black West Indians. Artists who can address both sides of the current cultural divide, bringing the concerns and issues of the one to the audiences of the other, stand a chance to advance the cause of reconciliation. 

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