The revival of Jimmy Chi’s musical Bran Nue Dae, which has opened in Sydney before a national tour 30 years after its premiere, hits the nation’s tender spot as we enter a new decade still grappling with Indigenous constitutional recognition.
The cast of this landmark Aboriginal play, set in the 1960s, delivers this long-awaited new production with brio, instilling hope that with unity there is a way forward to reconciliation.
Marcus Corowa gives a fabulously open-hearted and limber performance as Willie, the rebellious Aboriginal teenager who runs away from his Catholic boarding mission school in Perth, run by strict disciplinarian Father Benedictus (Andrew Moran).
Hitch-hiking his way home to remote coastal Broome, Willie falls in with the irascible elder Uncle Tadpole, played Ernie Dingo, reprising his role in the original stage production and later film adaptation. Uncle Tadpole says he has given up his days of droving – but he hasn’t given up his days of drinking.
The pair catch a lift with two hippies driving a Kombi van, German tourist Slippery (Callan Purcell) and his friend Marijuana Annie (understudy Danielle Sibosado in the opening night performance). Wide-eyed Willie, while grappling with possibly unrequited love for a girl, Rosie (Teresa Moore), catches Slippery and Annie having sex, and breathlessly rushes back to his uncle to report the news. “No one tell you about this kind of thing?” laughs Uncle Tadpole, before advising: “You’d better go watch it.”
Many such delicious, warm moments unite the audience in laughter. Chi, who co-wrote Bran Nue Day’s numbers with fellow members of the Indigenous Broome band Kuckles, gives voice to the saucily explicit, with young women singing joyously in Seeds That You Might Sow, “If you don’t use those condoms, then you can’t poke my hole.”
Elsewhere, Chi delivers lacerating truths of historical Indigenous genocide and continuing dispossession. The ensemble powerfully sings “Is this the end of our people?” in Listen to the News while clapping boomerangs above their heads, moments after the men reenact a projected real historical photograph of Aboriginal men chained together by their necks.
Thirty years after the play was first performed, Chi’s ironic wit still seems quintessentially Australian: “There’s nothing I would rather be than to be an Aborigine, and have you take my precious land away,” sings Willy. But even as he made fun of Christian customs, Chi was still able to compose a worthy hymn such as All the Way Jesus. He believed in God.
Born to a Bardi Aboriginal mother with Scottish heritage and a Broome-born father whose parents were Chinese and Japanese, Chi profoundly understood the need for multicultural Australia to get along. This goodwill flows through Bran Nue Dae. But Chi also understood the darkness, as he struggled for years with mental illness: an inquest heard in 2019 that Chi did not have access to an appropriate health facility when he died in 2017, aged 69.
Under the direction of Andrew Ross, who has also directed Chi’s other noted musical Corrugation Road, there is a reverence for the original production in this new production by The Opera Conference, the national partnership of opera companies; Ernie Dingo told the audience after the opening night performance that the cast was keen to stay as true as possible to Chi’s original approach.
But a couple of structural lessons could have been heeded from Rachel Perkins’s 2009 film version, co-written with Reg Cribb. In the movie, the relationship between Willie (Rocky McKenzie) and his mother Theresa (the late Ningali Lawford-Wolf) is foregrounded early, helping make more sense of the pair’s interactions later.
Moreover, the movie begins exploring Willie and Rosie’s relationship earlier in scenes at the Sun Pictures Gardens cinema, while giving star Jessica Mauboy more scope with the Rosie role than Teresa Moore gets to work with here on stage. Stage stories are never set in stone, and can always be reinvented, no matter how brilliant the source material.
Nevertheless, the alchemy between the cast in this production and the contemporary resonance of the songs reinforces Bran Nue Dae’s status as a leading contender for the country’s great musical. The setting of an open-air cinema and a town perhaps best known for its pearl diving might just be a place a nation can project aspirations for a unified future.
Bran Nue Dae is at Riverside theatres Parramatta for Sydney festival until 1 February, then the Regal theatre for Perth festival from 6 to 15 February, Geelong arts centre 4 to 7 June, Melbourne Comedy theatre 12 June to 11 July, QPAC Playhouse Brisbane 24 July – 2 August, Canberra theatre 11 to 16 August, and Her Majesty’s theatre in Adelaide 19 to 23 August.
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