To celebrate 30 years since its initial foundation as a Noongar youth theatre group, Yirra Yaakin offered a revue style selection of scenes from previous works, directed by Maitland Schnaars, showcasing the diversity of the company’s repertoire.
It was great to see excerpts from my own favourites, as well as examples of the company’s work in comedies of manners, social realist commentary, and Australian First Nations language performances.
Schnaars’ opened with Sally Morgan’s and David Milroy’s Cruel Wild Woman (1999), the scene being a two hander between the unlikely couple played by Bobbi Henry and Calen Tassone, moving between Henry relentlessly critiquing Tassone for being such a no hoper, and Tassone going on amusing flights of fancy and diatribes against the grotesque state of Australian race relations, with then Prime Minister “Little Johnny Howard” refusing an apology at the same time as racist scaremonger Pauline Hanson came onto the scene.
The use of a domestic setting for knockabout social critique directed straight at the audience evoked the mood of which much early Australian Aboriginal theatre.
More striking was the excerpt from the superb one hander Windmill Baby (2005; by Milroy), performed with aplomb by Della Rae Morrison as she looked with amused curiosity between the projected, glowing blades of a haunting windmill on an abandoned Kimberly station, relating tales of love, lust, violence, and the idiotic and evil things her white bosses did to workers and each other.
We only see the windmill as shadowy form moving across Morrison’s face, reminding one that in such a revue format, it was through a singular focus on the performer that we are invited to share the onstage world. While some of the earliest Australian Aboriginal theatre came with rich contextual details in the form of realist designs and costuming, this was always rooted in the more essential performative elements of body and breath.
We then moved to two scenes from 2015’s The Fever and the Fret by Jub Clerc, the first a rambling monologue from Kelton Pell, and then a melancholy discussion at the kitchen table between the increasingly confused Pell and his daughter Ebony McGuire.
Pell moved across a confused world of memory, poetry and fear in a presentation at once light but virtuosic. The father/daughter scene was a more conventionally realist study in dementia, but no less affecting.
The energetic high point of the program was Peter Docker’s rollicking 2016 three-hander So Long Suckers, written in collaboration with Emmanuel James Brown, Kyle Morrison and Ian Wilkes, here performed by Docker with Tassone and Rubeun Yorkshire. They played a trio of set upon, crazed, drunken and angry men who, we wee told, had all lost their heads (literally it turns out, each carrying it in a small tombstone like box).
They played, fell, fought and danced in a bleakly surreal limbo-like world: still one of the best depictions of what Behrouz Boochani and Omid Tofighian have described as “Australia’s Carceral-Border Archipelago”. As Patrick Dodson said, “we are a nation of jailers”. But even in such a realm, our trio fuss, joke, and dream confusing nightmares.
We then moved to the forceful but even delivery of Schnaars himself giving the closing monologue from Richard Frankland’s darkly meditative personal account of his work with the Aboriginal Deaths in Custody Royal Commission, Conversations with the Dead (2017).
Sparse in gesture, Schnaars took us to the seaside precipice his protagonist was standing upon as he wrestled with the spirits of the dead, his ancestors, and his heritage. “Is that all you’ve got, Spirits?” he said, with what followed being both an affirmation and a denial of their presence. In the end, the character had no choice but take the documents and accounts he had assembled and entomb them in a box. “Fuck ‘em,” he says of the Commission’s documents, before walking away.
Narelle Thorne’s crowd pleasing comedy Dating Black (2021) provides a respite, though it lacked some bounce on opening. Rayma Morrison however stole the scene by lightly yet precisely boogieing to the music of Hot Chocolate, and offering friendly yet snarky comments to her colleagues, her eyebrows rising to a pronounced arch.
The only work staged out of the order in which it was produced was the finale of Hecate (2020), the first full length play performed in Noongar and probably the first such piece in an Australian First Nations language.
Adapted from Macbeth by Kylie Bracknell / Kaarljilba Kaardn, Woolah! featured two monologues and one ritual piece which both had a visually striking treatment here, each actor poised like a statue in a personal spot light.
Henry offered Lady Macbeth’s “unsex me now” speech, here given as a powerful statement of self-affirmation, rather than a study in feminine malevolence. Yorkshire recited Macbeth’s “dagger of the mind” speech as something close to a focussed invocation, also an unusual reading, eschewing the standard portrayal of Macbeth as one torn between guilt and resolution.
This was followed by Morrison as Hecate the Witch, who rhythmically pronounced with rising gravitas something I could not identify. Especially in this unadorned treatment and delivered as stand alone sections of embodied recitation, these texts cease to be Shakespearean at all, becoming a kind of modern incantation. Flanked by the Macbeths, Morrison pulled the force of the on stage presences together before we closed with a song.
Woolah! was an inclusive and at times pleasantly low key production, presented as a gift. It was nevertheless an instructive retrospective, serving to remind audiences and especially wadjela outsiders like me how far Aboriginal theatre has come from the early days of realist social commentary like Kevin Gilbert’s The Cherry Pickers (1968).
Politics often remains paramount, but critical discourse was here presented as part of a wild or surreal burlesque, of which So Long Suckers provided the most scintillating example – while Hecate represented something more distinctive and which continues to evolve.
Woolah! was presented by Yirra Yaakin at the Subiaco Arts Centre Nov 3–10, 2023