Last month, over 300 Black, Indigenous and People of Colour (BIPOC) theatre-makers wrote a letter to “White American Theatre”.
“We see you. We have always seen you. We have watched you pretend not to see us,” the letter reads, before going on to describe systemic racism in theatre programming, representation, decision-making, community engagement, and funding.
Written amidst the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests in the states, the letter (with demands that followed) was signed by artists such as Billy Porter, Sandra Oh and Lin-Manuel Miranda.
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Meanwhile, all parts of arts and media are going through a reckoning with racism, representation and inequality.
At the National Institute for Dramatic Arts, in Sydney, over 100 alumni, students and former staff signed a letter accusing the school of “systemic and institutionalised racism”.
In this climate, we asked three Indigenous theatre leaders about the state of theatre in Australia, and what needs to change.
‘This is our table’
Perth’s Yirra Yaakin is one of a handful of Indigenous-led theatre companies in Australia.
Since it began in 1993, the company has premiered more than 50 major works at festivals, including Hecate — a Noongar-language telling of Macbeth that premiered at this year’s Perth Festival.
Yamatji woman Eva Grace Mullaley took up the role of artistic director at Yirra Yaakin last year.
“We’d done a lot of mainstage and very adult shows written to educate non-Indigenous people on, for lack of a better word, the ‘plight’ of Indigenous people, and I’m not interested in that anymore,” Mullaley says.
“I’d been paying attention to the national conversation, and it was time we stopped making theatre for white audiences. And that’s not to say I want to exclude anyone, it’s just my mantra now is: ‘This is our table, but you’re welcome at it’.”
She says this shift in approach has resulted in Yirra Yaakin’s First Nations audience now sitting at around 30 per cent, the highest in the country.
“The more we think of Aboriginal theatre as issues-based, the more I feel we become an issue, and we’re not an issue. It’s the way we’re perceived that is the issue,” says Mullaley.
“So, if we perceive ourselves as contemporary, astute, evolutionary, then why can’t we put those things on our stage?
“We need companies like mine, like Ilbijerri and Moogahlin, to show you that we are three-dimensional individuals. But mostly, to show ourselves that that’s the case, because we’re taught, so often, that we are a stereotype or we are lesser [than] or we are not worthy. Our companies exist to push against that.”
Mullaley says she attends shows put on by mainstage Australian theatre companies, interrogating how they portray First Nations people.
“So often misrepresentation is rife and it’s when a show is written from a non-Indigenous perspective about Indigenous people … [In those shows] we’re stereotypes or we’re angry or we’re living trauma every moment of our lives.”
In terms of what she expects from white-led theatres, Mullaley calls for companies to hire Indigenous creatives in many roles in their productions.
The next step is for companies to listen to and honour the requests made by First Nations people in their employ.
“I just want to pave a way for them to do it right, because they are better resourced than our small-to-medium companies, and they have an onus to represent Australia as it is.”
Our stories, voices, humour
Rachael Maza (Yidinji and Meriam) is the artistic director of Melbourne’s Ilbijerri Theatre Company, and the second generation in her family to lead an Indigenous theatre: in the 70s, her father Bob Maza helped set up Melbourne’s Nindethana theatre — Australia’s first Aboriginal theatre company — as well as the National Black Theatre in Redfern.
Maza worked for years as an actor, directly experiencing the issues described by Mullaley.
“The experience of being an Indigenous actor, picking up a script that’s been written by some non-Indigenous person in some big white production company or whatever it is, the quality is so horrendous, it is such a misrepresentation,” she says.
Maza says a decade and more of reading these kinds of scripts led her to take up the artistic director role at Ilbijerri in 2008.
“This company was absolutely about what I was most frustrated about. So I was like, ‘Okay, I need to put my money where my mouth is. If I want to see stories told well, then start making them’,” Maza says.
“At the heart of this company [Ilbijerri] is creating platforms, for our stories, for our voices to be heard, and celebrated — particularly in light of the work that has been historically made in this country about who we are, often not made by us.”
Works made under Maza’s artistic direction include 2015’s Beautiful One Day, and Jack Charles V the Crown, where veteran actor Uncle Jack Charles told his life story, from Stolen Generations survivor to Koori theatre in the 70s, and beyond.
That production premiered in 2010 and garnered a Helpmann nomination for Charles, before touring for eight years, and is now available to stream.
Maza says there’s a lineage of “non-PC” humour connecting her father’s work to the kind of Indigenous theatre being made recently, including Nakkiah Lui’s plays (e.g. Blackie Blackie Brown and Black is the New White) and Ilbijerri’s latest production, a collaboration with New Zealand’s Te Rēhia Theatre called Black Ties.
“From my immediate experiences of Ilbijerri theatre, [I think] there is an incredible growing demand for our work, and black theatre more broadly,” says Maza.
“We are in the middle of what feels like a really significant shift in the Australian psyche, to want to engage … to allow the stories to be aired, allow the truth to be heard, the healing to start so that we can start to move forward together as a country.”
Despite her optimism, Maza is all too aware of the problems that persist — from Aboriginal deaths in custody and everyday racism to negative responses to Meyne Wyatt’s electrifying monologue on Q+A.
“We’re making baby steps. I believe we’re moving forward, but obviously, we’ve got a long way to go,” she says.
‘A First Nations lens’
Rhoda Roberts (Bundjalung) was part of the group that formed the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust in the late 80s.
Roberts and other founding members (including Lydia Miller, Brian Syron, and Justine Saunders) were spurred on, in part, by their experiences performing “two-dimensional characters”.
“The roles we’d be getting were ‘the gin’, the drunk, the prostitute … you’d get on set and know you could add another layer to this,” she recalls.
“That still occurs a lot today, in a sense, where First Nations performers will have to do a background check on their characters to ensure the history, the location and the politics is right — and that’s a thing they have to carry as an artist.”
Roberts was the founding artistic director of Indigenous arts festival The Dreaming, in 1997, and in 2012 she took up the newly created role of head of First Nations programming at the Sydney Opera House.
“It’s interesting with the dialogue going on across the globe at the moment … having that First Nations voice at the Opera House helps with shifting attitudes and positions and enabling greater visibility of First Nations people,” Roberts says.
“It’s about ensuring we have First Nations programming from a First Nations lens at an organisation like the Sydney Opera House,” she adds.
Roberts has her own budget, giving her decision-making power over what to commission and give a platform to, and the ability to respond to the needs of communities and the gaps in the arts industry.
That’s what led her to create the cabaret Natives Go Wild, which premiered in 2019, as well as the annual dance competition Dance Rites, which she began in 2015.
“In every [Indigenous] community there are custodians of songlines that are so important to the mapping and memory of country … songlines, story and dance are where we get that information, and if one of those custodians dies — there goes the songline,” Roberts says.
“So I realised there had to be reclamation work done to ensure that the next generation doesn’t lose the dances that are thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of years old.”
Dance Rites will be going online this year due to COVID-19, which means more communities without the resources to get to Sydney can take part.
Roberts says more can be done to bring First Nations stories to Australian stages, looking to the work of Screen Australia’s Indigenous Department, which she says has been successful in building capacity in the film industry.
‘This is a wave’
Mullaley agrees with Maza — there is something shifting at the moment.
“Baby steps are better than no steps. And the whole world has just realised that change doesn’t kill you, so this is the time for change,” Mullaley says.
“COVID and the Black Lives Matter movement are showing us that there is a want for less misrepresentation of First Nations and People of Colour in the world, not just in this country. And this is a wave that we want to keep riding.”
Still, the change is happening too slowly for her — and while things have returned to normal in Western Australia as COVID-19 has been kept at bay, normal is not what she’s after.
“I really believe now is the time where we should be making these big changes towards equality and big changes towards listening to the people that understand the land better than anyone else on the planet.”
Roberts would like to see First Nations people more “embedded” in the arts sector.
“I am so bloody over how every year when it’s NAIDOC Week or Reconciliation Week, [organisations] go ‘let’s get a blackfella in, we better tick the box’.
“We need to do this as part and parcel of our cultural fabric as a nation. It has to be in every sector, and in every arts [area] there needs to be First Nations, because we have the talent.
“We play host to the oldest living adapting culture on the planet, so let’s value that and work together with that.”
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