‘It had no filters’: the legacy of Australia’s provocative Nationwide Black Theatre | Australian theatre

When the primary full-length play by an Indigenous Australian to be professionally produced premiered in Redfern in 1975, its author, Robert Merritt, sat chained within the viewers to 2 police escorts for the whole efficiency.

When the play ended, to thunderous applause, Merritt walked to the stage, throwing his arms within the air, in addition to the arms of his two burly safety escorts. He was nonetheless handcuffed to every of them.

Merritt wrote The Cake Man in 1974 in a writing workshop whereas an inmate at Bathurst jail and was granted launch for the evening to see the premiere, held on the Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre in Cope Road, Redfern, the place the short-lived however culturally highly effective Nationwide Black Theatre discovered its second house, having begun in 1972 in a close-by terraced home.

The play was based mostly on the lives of Merritt’s mother and father and tells the story of an Aboriginal household struggling to reside on a mission: Candy William, his Bible-loving spouse Ruby and their son, Pumpkinhead.

Justine Saunders as Ruby and Graham Moore as Pumpkinhead in a 1982 manufacturing of The Cake Man. {Photograph}: Performing Traces

Now, on the fiftieth anniversary of the National Black Theatre, Merritt’s niece, the Wiradjuri and Yuin actor Angeline Penrith, will carry out a monologue from The Cake Man on the Party, Protest, Remember occasion at Carriageworks this Saturday, held in Eveleigh, having grown up close by in Redfern.

‘I am a child of the revolution’: Angeline Penrith, the daughter of activist Aunty Bronwyn Penrith and the niece of playwright Robert Merritt.
‘I’m a toddler of the revolution’: Angeline Penrith, the daughter of activist Aunty Bronwyn Penrith and the niece of playwright Robert Merritt. {Photograph}: Jacquie Manning

Her late uncle’s seminal play has deep private significance, being about her grandparents, and rising from an period when a brand new Black civil rights consciousness fed Indigenous empowerment in legislation, drugs, housing, land rights and the humanities in Australia.

“The Cake Man has been an enormous affect in my life,” Penrith says. “The play provides me a snapshot into life I wasn’t aware of, being born in 1982; the icing on the cake is it was about my household.

“I’m a toddler of the revolution, of the individuals who did it their method: all Black management, Black actors. For me, that was the last word method of making, out of [political] resistance.”

Her uncle Bob was a “insurgent” however he “wasn’t seemed on as a prison in Aboriginal communities”, Penrith says. “He was seemed on as one other brother boy, one other group particular person.” Merritt went on to determine the Eora Centre for the Visible and Performing Arts in Redfern in 1984.

On the Occasion, Protest, Keep in mind occasion, Penrith may even learn from the provocatively titled Here Comes the Nigger, written by the late Bundjalung playwright Gerry Bostock and staged on the Nationwide Black Theatre in 1976.

The Nationwide Black Theatre grew out of avenue theatre staged throughout protests over land rights and mining on Aboriginal sacred sights. It was a go to by Palm Island-born actor and playwright Bob Maza to the National Black Theatre in Harlem in 1970 that opened his eyes to Black theatre’s potential.

Police brutality and common arrests and raids on the Empress hotel in Redfern had spurred many Aboriginal folks into activism and in flip the humanities. Prof Marcia Langton, now chair of Australian Indigenous Research on the College of Melbourne, recalled in Darlene Johnson’s 2014 documentary The Redfern Story (which can be screened as a part of Occasion, Protest, Keep in mind), the native police cells “had been known as the abattoirs. The cells had been coated with Aboriginal blood.”

The theatre started in a rented two-storey sandstone terrace in Regent Road, Redfern, which grew to become a gathering place of debate, music and political strategising, a hub for the native Black caucus operating Australia’s first Aboriginal-controlled authorized and medical companies, established in Redfern in 1970 and 1971 respectively.

A still from Darlene Johnson’s 2014 documentary The Redfern Story.
A nonetheless from Darlene Johnson’s 2014 documentary The Redfern Story. {Photograph}: Electra Foley

Penrith’s mom, elder Aunty Bronwyn Penrith, recollects touchdown in Redfern from Griffith along with her suitcases in 1970, not understanding anyone, in search of job alternatives in a suburb the place some 20,000 Aboriginal folks had been dwelling, principally in poverty. Aunty Bronwyn quickly met Indigenous activists corresponding to Paul and Isabel Coe, Gary Foley and Gary Williams, whose “coming collectively was a really highly effective spearpoint of the motion”, she says.

She was persuaded to participate in avenue theatre throughout protests and went to small dialogue teams held by a younger Indigenous mob educating themselves with books about the US civil rights motion. Collectively, they noticed politics and artwork as inseparable. Aunty Bronwyn was additionally a part of the activism on the Aboriginal Tent Embassy arrange reverse previous Parliament Home in 1972.

The Nationwide Black Theatre’s earliest success was its Mainly Black revue skits, carried out at Nimrod Theatre in Kings Cross, which had been then commissioned as a short-lived ABC TV pilot sequence in 1973 – however discontinued when thought-about “too political and provocative” by the nationwide broadcaster.

The theatre wound up in 1977 attributable to a scarcity of presidency funding. At the moment, Australia has Indigenous-controlled arts firms corresponding to Ilbijerri Theatre Company in Melbourne, directed by Bob Maza’s daughter Rachael Maza, and the Bangarra Dance Theatre, however Brownyn and Angeline Penrith say Indigenous Australians “completely” nonetheless ought to have a nationwide theatre.

“At the moment I’d wish to see a Nationwide Black Theatre allow folks to return collectively and information what occurs in Black theatre,” Aunty Bronwyn says.

“In nowadays of truth-telling, it’s turn into much more necessary that we will draw on the early days of Black theatre. The honesty and rawness of theatre. This had no filters.”

A staging of Robert Merritt’s 1974 play The Cake Man.
A staging of Robert Merritt’s play The Cake Man. {Photograph}: Performing Traces

Thomas Mayor, a Kaurareg Aboriginal and Kalkalgal, Erubamle Torres Strait Islander man and Uluru Statement from the Heart campaigner, says “consciousness and braveness comes very a lot from the humanities as a driving pressure … of protest – I don’t suppose you may have one with out the opposite”.

At this weekend’s Occasion, Protest, Keep in mind occasion – which may even characteristic reside music, DJ units, weaving circles, performances by Jannawi Dance Clan and a drag stage hosted by Nana Miss Koori – Mayor will lead a citizens’ assembly for discussions, questions and solutions a couple of constitutionally enshrined First Nations voice to parliament, forward of the federal authorities’s referendum poll, expected someday between July 2023 and the tip of the June 2024.

Mayor, who can be the Maritime Union of Australia’s nationwide Indigenous officer, was entrusted to hold the 1.6 by 1.8 metre “sacred” Uluru Statement from the Heart canvas round Australia, “rolled up in a patched-together postal tube”, rolling it out for teams from cities via to distant communities to learn.

Nana Miss Koori is hosting a drag stage at Party | Protest | Remember.
Nana Miss Koori, the host of a drag stage at Occasion, Protest, Keep in mind at Carriageworks. {Photograph}: Jacquie Manning

“I’m optimistic [for a successful yes vote] due to an apparent change of sentiment among the many Australian folks, to wish to acknowledge that there’s a darkish historical past on this nation and the way in which issues are,” Mayor says.

“It’s not going to return with out laborious work and the type of sacrifice our elders needed to do to see the 1967 referendum succeed, however I do imagine in my folks, and there may be goodwill throughout broader Australia.”

Aunty Bronwyn, nevertheless, says she doesn’t have a whole lot of religion within the voice to parliament proposal. “I’ve seen a whole lot of types of this, so we’ll simply see the way it goes,” she says. “We’re well beyond the advisory stage. We must be there with correct treaty and sovereignty.”

Leave a Comment