I’ll never forget my first day on the job as a fledgling writer with Perth’s REVelation magazine. It was 1991 and minutes after arriving I was handed a notepad and camera and sent to Subiaco’s Regal Theatre to interview indigenous writer Jimmy Chi about his new production, Bran Nue Dae.
Cast and crew including acclaimed WA choreographer Michael Leslie were busy with their opening night dress rehearsal while Jimmy, a known schizophrenic from Broome who spent time in notorious Graylands Hospital (the inspiration behind his 1996 box office breaking play Corrugation Road), stood on the sidewalk singing classical love songs to cars queued on Rokeby Road.
I was as green as could be and thoroughly enchanted with my first chaotic assignment. While very few of my questions were answered in straightforward fashion, I did get my story along with an invitation to sit with Jimmy and his family as performers hit the stage later that night to great acclaim.
Bran Nue Dae would go on to tour nationally, putting Australia’s first indigenous musical on the arts map along with Jimmy’s razor sharp political and cultural commentary. While bringing great praise to Aboriginal artists including Ernie Dingo, Josie Ningali Lawford and Leah Purcell, the biographical narrative beautifully articulated the themes of family, forgiveness and reconciliation. (Ernie would later join Geoffrey Rush, Jessica Mauboy, Missy Higgins, Deborah Mailman and Dan Sultan in the 2010 film adaptation).
Indigenous broadcaster, journalist and arts executive Rhoda Roberts not only remembers the seminal play but also played a pivotal role in its genesis.
“I had the wonderful opportunity, along with Lydia Miller, of producing the Second National Playwrights Conference as directors of the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust,” she recalled. “One of the plays selected that year to workshop was from a series of songs sent from Jimmy. During the conference we developed the dialogue with a number of actors and the end result was Bran Nue Dae.”
Considered one of Australia’s most accomplished artistic directors (Sydney Opera House, The Dreaming Festival, 2000 Sydney Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, Garma Festival), Rhoda has joined forces with Bluesfest director Peter Noble to showcase the Boomerang Festival next month in Byron Bay. Encompassing the arts, workshops, music and authentic cultural exchanges between indigenous and non-indigenous people, the event will be programmed by and with a First Nation’s perspective.
“I am a Widjabul woman from the Bundjalung nation, so it was important on a personal level to have our homelands host the festival,” she said. “It’s also important that the east coast has this type of event to showcase culture as it empowers our community and enables employment of our leading artists and crafts people. Capacity building is so important in rural areas. There is huge potential with the many visitors who travel to the region to experience the depth of culture and layers of walking on country. It’s an economy that has long-term outcomes. There has always been strong cultural leaders across our region and even older historically that have not been heard or celebrated as much as they should.”
Artists within the local Arakwal clan are scheduled cross the five-day program through Elders Talks, which Rhoda hopes will eventually include off-site tours on country as the event grows. “We have a great relationship with the community and work on Aboriginal custodial boundaries and clans so the appropriate welcomes and protocols are adhered to,” she said. “The event will provide audiences with an intimate and moving Indigenous experience, which can be life changing and empowering.”
“I am delighted that a number of young businesses, who make their living on our homelands and who have a vision to promote local excellence, want to work inclusively with our people,” she said. “The challenge ahead is to create a foundation from which the festival can develop into its full potential; the assistance of community, corporate and government partnerships will help see this foundation laid. We need solid partnerships and commitments, be it with State, Territory and Commonwealth Governments, and the corporate sector. This stability will enable organisers to develop the core business of the event and galvanise successful ongoing partnerships with industry and private sector organisations to create a sustainable cultural celebration. The yield from the successful execution of this plan will be enormous for the arts and cultural communities, Indigenous communities, the local Aboriginal community, regional business, commerce, and the wider tourism industry.”
For Boomerang Festival tickets and program information visit www.boomerangfestival.com.au
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