There’s a clear emphasis on diversity within the Indigenous program at this year’s Sydney Festival. 2017 director Wesley Enoch, a proud Noonucal Nuugi man, set out to introduce new Indigenous voices and fresh perspectives, a commitment which sees promising young talents like first-time playwright Nathan Maynard share a platform with acclaimed artists like Vernon Ah Kee and Dan Sultan. And for many festival-goers, the result may entail a total reassessment of their understanding of Aboriginality.
“It’s by no means the largest Indigenous program the festival has had, but we’ve got a different mix of things,” says Enoch. “Indigeneity, or Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander-ness has often in the past had this single front where we have kind of bound ourselves together to speak with one voice. I think the next generation, what we’re seeing and trying to do now is say, ‘Well look at how different we all are, as well as how many things we have in common’.
By putting a whole range of projects together that mark out some kind of broad perimeter that Aboriginality can exist inside of, it’s offering more than a tick-the-box example, or a single way of thinking of our world. We’re pulling Aboriginality out in lots of different directions because we are more diverse. And no one else gets to define who we are. We get to define who we are.”
In addition to the world premiere of newcomer Maynard’s play The Season and Ah Kee’s solo exhibition Not an Animal or a Plant – his largest to date – Enoch’s Indigenous billing includes a hybrid text-video-dance piece by Jacob Boehme titled Blood on the Dance Floor; the Bayala language workshop series; Katie Beckett’s “road-play” Which Way Home; an all-star concert event at the Sydney Opera House called 1967: Music in the Key of Yes; the Yellamundie National First Peoples Playwriting Festival; and the one-man play Huff by Cree First Nations playwright and performer Cliff Cardinal.
For many of these works, the identity politics are bound closely with broader cultural and political issues, some impacting First Nations over generations, others more recently. Boehme’s Blood on the Dance Floor is about the performer’s experience living with HIV for the past 18 years. Enoch says that it’s a unique perspective on Aboriginality that even many Blackfellas don’t get.
Similarly, The Season subtly addresses Aboriginal representation in Maynard’s home state of Tasmania where current premier Will Hodgman has presided over recent changes to the eligibility criteria for identifying as Aboriginal. Maynard believes that the reforms were more about opening up development in the southern state than conserving the integrity of Indigenous identity.
“He’s now ignoring the whole Aboriginal community that’s been there since day dot. He’s only interested in talking to the new lot now. The next really big development, when he needs to go to the Aboriginal community, he’s just gonna go to these new fellas and they don’t give a shit about what’s happening outside of their feathered nests,” says Maynard. “They haven’t got the Cause. They’ve got no sense of all that.”
The Season – Maynard’s first play – is Aboriginal directed (Isaac Drandic), produced and has an all-Indigenous cast that includes a mix of acting experience, with stars like Trevor Jamieson (The Secret River), Tammy Anderson (I Don’t Wanna Play House), Luke Carroll (Australian Rules), and Kelton Pell (The Gods of Wheat Street), being joined by relative newcomers Nazaree Dickerson and James Slee. The play is also the first work to ‘graduate’ from a past Yellamundie playwriters mentoring program and then premiere at the Sydney Festival proper. It is something festival director Enoch is proud to have facilitated. He says Maynard’s play reminds him of the early work of the renowned Aboriginal playwright Jack Davis: “The sense of family drama, the cultural continuity, the language. And it’s hilarious. The type of gallows-humour that a lot of Aboriginal people have, it’s got that in spades. You know, where the worst things ever happen and there’s a deadpan joke about it.”
The musical extravaganza of 1967: Music in the Key of Yes is also charged with unique intersections of personal and broadly public forms of politics. Producer Steve Richardson (who, along with Ruby Hunter, co-founded the Black Arm Band performing company) worked closely with acclaimed Aboriginal author and activist Alexis Wright to capture the political, social and historical context of the famous 1967 referendum result, which bestowed new constitutional powers on the federal government to make laws that applied to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
“The change was sort of a very technical change. It wasn’t a big, broad brushstroke statement or anything. It was actually quite a technical legislative change, but the campaign behind it was really symbolic,” says Flanagan. “We’re trying to create that atmosphere and empathy rather than tell a didactic story. It’s all about paying respects and tribute to the people who went through that time.”
The performance includes Indigenous artists Dan Sultan, Radical Son, Leah Flanagan, Yirrmal, Thelma Plumb, Alice Sky, Emily Wurramara, and Ursula Yovich, amongst others, and will utilise archival film footage, soundscapes of the poetry of writer and activist Oodgeroo Noonuccal, and the words of other important political figures from the era.
Richardson says his production team was strategic in approaching the artists: “We were really keen to try and set all this work on a new generation of artists. The original pioneers of Aboriginal music are getting on a bit, but also there’s increasing relevance to take this story forward. Particularly on the 50th anniversary, where there’s not too many artists that were around at that time still, sort of, current. So settling this work on a new generation of Aboriginal artists is really important.”
Singer Leah Flanagan says it was important to the productions young Indigenous ensemble to honour the musical artists and the civil rights activism of the past, both locally and internationally: “A lot of the songs we’re singing are by artists that have played a role in our development as musicians, as well as being inspirational voices of those times.
We’re all politically aware. We know that without their push, without those activists of the ‘67 era, a lot of opportunities wouldn’t have happened for a lot of our mob who live in the bush, who didn’t have that voice.”
The Sydney Festival runs 7-29 January.
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Luke Pearson is a Gamilaroi man, and is the founder and CEO of IndigenousX.