Found, albeit overseas: an audience that hungers for Aboriginal drama

Sydney Morning Herald, - Friday, August 3, 2001
Author: Debra Jopson

The Aboriginal theatrical all-rounder Glenn Shea believes Australia is on the verge of reaping billions of dollars from the black theatrical renaissance which he estimates has produced 40 to 50 writers, about 20 theatre directors, well over 100 actors and numerous film producers.

"It's a huge industry. Overseas is a huge market," said Shea, who, as director of the Melbourne-based company Ilbijerri and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Co-operative which mounted the hit Stolen, has glimpsed an international hunger for indigenous arts that goes well beyond dot painting.

After playing in Sydney, Hong Kong and London, Stolen will tour Britain for three months from October.

But Shea worries that audiences here fear black theatre, finding it too political and confronting, while even young indigenous actors steer clear, afraid they will be typecast and marginalised.

So he hopes an exhibition he has curated opening at the Powerhouse Museum today will help people appreciate the vibrancy of current black theatre and the work of pioneers such as Gary Foley , Kath Walker, Bryan Syron, Lester and Gerry Bostock and the West Australian playwright Jack Davis.

"People will understand black theatre is not just an element for a political voice, but for the human beings speaking to the society and telling their stories," he says.

Five minutes into conversation with him, it is clear why he had to do this exhibition. He has an addiction to gossip and detail. He is passionate about his subject, knows all the key players and has spent hours yarning into the wee hours with many of them. He loves to share snippets.

Example: How did Kevin Gilbert, jailbird from 1957 to 1971, get the script for his play The Cherry Pickers out into the greater Melbourne world, where it became the first full-length Aboriginal work ever staged? Answer: it was smuggled on toilet paper. Additional detail: the fire around which some of the play's action took place was a light bulb covered with branches.

"When the fire needed to be lit, an actor leaned over and turned on the switch." The program from this production is among the memorabilia in this first-ever national exhibition about black theatre, set for a seven-month run through a $15,000 NSW Centenary of Federation Committee grant.

In three years' research for his Melbourne University Master of Arts thesis due for December delivery Shea has collected programs, posters and photos which tell the story of how the black presence busted onto our stages in the 1970s, then got so big it spilled into TV and film and went global in the 1990s.

Five years ago, this descendant of the Ngarrindjeri people of South Australia and the Wathaurong of Geelong became NIDA's first Aboriginal graduate. Now 37, he is sought after as an actor, writer and director. But the history of his craft has so entranced him that he augmented a $17,500 grant from the university's Australian Research Centre with $30,000 of his own money to dig into it.

He took interstate theatrical work to help pay for on-the-ground research. While playing Caliban in the Queensland Theatre Company's production of The Tempest, he researched Brisbane's Kooemba Jdarra company.

At the Indigenous National Playwrights' Conference in Adelaide last year, he was surrounded by 20 to 30 black theatre pioneers and newcomers. Formal interviews were useful, but the best fun and most illuminating insights came from nights around the kitchen table.

For instance, the late "Uncle" Bob Maza told him about casting for Bobby Merritt's The Cake Man, which became the first full-length Aboriginal play staged in Sydney in 1972. Justine Saunders auditioned for a part.

"He said she was a fine actor and a beautiful woman, but he couldn't give her the role because she was too young." He went to lunch and when he returned, an older woman auditioned.

"He gave her the job. It was Justine. She had transformed herself," said Shea.

As black theatre goes global, a detail about actor Kevin Smith serves to show how far it has come from the fringe.

Shea opens the yellowing 1976 program for the National Black Theatre at Redfern production of Here Comes the Nigger in which white actors Bryan Brown and Julie McGregor played alongside Aborigines Marcia Langton and Kevin Stewart who looks remarkably like Smith.

"Kevin Smith had to be Stewart because the police were looking for him at the time," explained Shea.

Edition: Late
Section: Metropolitan
Page: 15