Monday, October 10, 2011

Summery Justice

Photo by Pants

Of all the things that baffle me about the birth-mother country, the culture wars top the long list. Having been away for the entire protracted business, I find myself left raking over the fragments of what appears to be a truce arrived at through a combination of exhaustion and intractability. No one ever wants to talk about it either, except via an occasional, oblique passing reference. You can't even find anything sensible to read about this pivotal moment in Australian history as its all been buried under the most impenetrable slurry of code and jargon imaginable.

I know it was bad because Aboriginal culture and rest-of-us culture are now very inharmoniously divorced. What seemed like a perfectly sensible idea to start with - that white Australia cease exploiting, suppressing and disrespecting black Australia - somehow morphed into a small room with two very large elephants in it refusing to look at each other. I am being flippant here. I do know that the laws governing access to Aboriginal arts and ceremonies are complex and that it was probably easier to just not go there. But twenty years down the line, we are all paying for that stand-off with, effectively, two entirely separate artistic Australias.

Chinese Australian artist/designer Jenny Kee claims in her autobiography, A Big Life, that Aboriginal activist Charles Perkins told her in the 90s she couldn't paint snakes because snakes are a sacred totem. Presuming that really happened, it's an interesting indicator of how crazily polarised the situation became. That kind of response was, in many ways, entirely appropriate for a people whose culture and identity had been so completely trashed. But the perfectly reasonable act of reasserting ownership over the misappropriated signifiers of culture and identity seems to have effectively assigned Aboriginality to a no-go sealed vault.

In 2008, our then Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, publicly apologised to Aboriginal people for the Stolen Generations. In doing so, he opened the door to meaningful dialogue on the contested points of our shared history and the opportunity for a little reconciliation and healing. Except, no one went through it. Four years later, Aboriginal people are still amongst the poorest, most marginalised people on earth and the two cultural elephants are still studiously ignoring each other in their claustrophobic little room. Non-Aboriginal Australia remains self-consciously reserved about making any reference at all to Aboriginal Australia artistically save for the occasional supercilious and self-serving admission of guilt. And Aboriginal arts have generally been corralled into a few ghettos of approved authenticity. When someone does crack the mould, like visual artist Tracey Moffatt or film-maker Warwick Thornton, they are ignored at home even when they are feted abroad.

Which is why Deborah Cheetham's Aboriginal opera Pecan Summer is so remarkable. That's right, an opera. Written by an Aboriginal soprano and starring a cast of Aboriginal men, women and children whom Cheetham scouted and trained herself. Talk about leaping the cultural chasm in a single bound. Reggae is blackfella music. Country is blackfella music. Hip hop is blackfella music. But opera is as whitefella as it gets. And not only that. It's manifestly uncool. Opera is the territory of black-tie wearing, embassy-ball attending, Krug-guzzling toffs. Or is it?

I find myself sitting in a packed Melbourne Playhouse on the final night of Pecan Summer's sell-out three-night season, in the presence of our toff-supreme, the Governor of the State of Victoria, like that was the most normal thing in the world to be doing. For this alone, Cheetham deserves every honour going and a great big grant so that this opera can tour the country for ever and become as firmly etched onto the national psyche as Waltzing Matilda. Bear with me. I'll get over myself in a second. Barney, bring me a chardonnay - I'm poised to review.

Pecan Summer tells the true story of the Cummeragunja walk-off. In 1939, 200 Aboriginal residents left this mission because of intolerable treatment, crossed the Dhungala (Murray River) and journeyed over the border into Victoria, where some set up home along the riverbank. Others walked on to Melbourne in search of work and to meet up with other Yorta Yorta countrymen and women, notably the Aboriginal rights activist William Cooper. Cheetham also interweaves into the main event the dominant national narrative of our times, the story of the Stolen Generations. On the one hand, an extremely tall order. On the other, perfect subject matter for opera.

It begins with a short dance prelude depicting the creation of Dhungala at the beginning of time. This is very simply achieved with dancer Surmsah Bin Saad rolling across the stage in a long piece of cloth which unravels to reveal the river. It serves to remind us that this is the oldest continuous culture in the world and that what we are seeing represents around 70,000 years of storytelling.

We are then transported to the banks of the Yarra River behind Melbourne's Federation Square in July, 2006. Aboriginal community worker Alice (Shauntaii Batske) is mistaken for a derelict by a group of drunken white youths. One taunts her with the question, 'what have you ever done with your life?' She replies that she gave birth to a daughter without much help from anyone. Her colleague Michael (Carlos Enrique Barcenas Ramirez) overhears this exchange. He didn't know Alice had a daughter. It transpires that her daughter had been taken shortly after her birth in 1964, as Alice herself had been ripped from the arms of her own mother at age eleven. Both are children of the Stolen Generations.

Flashback to 1939 and the Cummeragunja Mission in rural New South Wales, where young Alice (Jessica Hitchcock), brother Jimmy (Eddie Bryant), father James (Don Bemrose) and mother Ella (Deborah Cheetham) live. They are a happy, healthy and functional family, despite the tyrannical cruelty of mission manager McGuiggan (Stephen Grant) and the ever-present danger of police swoops to pick off any children who have strayed too far from safety. Everyone in the community knows that once gone, these children will never be seen again.

Act I establishes the rhythms of both family and community life succinctly and poetically through the gentle, harmonious music of composer Cheetham. Although the recitative is classically operatic, the songs are closer in reference to American musical theatre. Cheetham cites Puccini and Saint-Saƫns as influences but I think I also detect a little Gershwin in there. The act culminates in a gathering of the Cummergunja residents at Ella and James's house for a crisis meeting. At this point we meet Uncle Bill (Tiriki Onus) who devours his moment with the scary story of Hairy Beka. The point at which they decide to leave the mission is marked by a glorious ensemble number. The souvenir programme, rather annoyingly, doesn't list the 'songs'. I'm still humming the tune though and the words I do remember - 'we'll leave together, we'll go together'.

During the long interval I take notes rather than go to the bar - a first, let me assure you. I think about the very simple sets, costumes, lighting and wonder why everyone thinks they need to spend millions on mounting any kind of play with music in it these days. I also note that apart from the two young Aboriginal women seated next to me and a few others a few rows down on the left, the audience is made up entirely of old, white folks in claret-coloured cardies.

Some months after the exodus from Cummergunja, Alice and her family are living on the riverbank near the Victorian town of Shepparton. The great depression has hit. The people are hungry. They rediscover 'the old ways' of food gathering, like trapping fish. This keeps them from starvation. There is lovely vocal interaction between these four characters, notably the glorious lullaby sung by Ella to the sleeping Alice. I learn from the programme notes that this is a passed-down song, given to Cheetham by a cousin and also known to other Aboriginal peoples. It is the stand-out tune of the show and I can hum it note for note. Suddenly those protocols don't seem so impenetrable.

Inevitably - this is opera, after all - tragedy strikes. Young Alice is tempted into 'town' aka 'peril' by the lure of the movie house. At this point, the fortunes of our close-knit family diverge. Word reaches the riverbank settlement that the hated McGuiggan has gone. The men prepare to leave for Cummeragunja. Ella discovers that Alice has been taken by the authorities. Alice has, in fact, been 'rescued' by decent, white Christian people and scrubbed and white-gloved to within an inch of her young life. Ella risks the short but dangerous route along the river into town. She meets a bad man and a bad thing happens. He tries to rape her. There's a scuffle and he disappears down a riverbank.

Alice appears in the front pew of a small, country church, seated next to the minister's wife. This is the setting for one of the loveliest choral moments in the opera as the members of the congregation sing their hymn. The most significant reason for this loveliness is the knock-out voice of Rosamund Illing, playing the minister's wife. The scene is sweet and genuine. It is not played for laughs. This is one of Cheetham's great strengths. She has a heart big enough for forgiveness and generosity. In opera, it's essential that there be no pantomime baddies. It's equally essential that there be no flawless goodies.

A dishevelled Ella arrives as the congregation is dispersing and attempts to reclaim her daughter. It's a superb climax with the sopranos going head to head. This is the moment I realise Cheetham is bringing something refreshing to our national story and doing it in the time-honoured operatic tradition. Although Ella's absolute moral right in this situation is completely clear to us, she appears to have just killed a man. Although the minister's wife's claim on the girl is utterly spurious as observed through our hindsight lens, we learn she has rescued Alice from the authorities and intends to give her a decent Christian upbringing where she'll have every advantage. Life is complex, as are people and we would all do well to remember that when we're tying ourselves up in knots trying to work out how this broken thing we call our national psyche can ever be fixed.

I had resisted tears up until this point. The postlude brings us back to Federation Square in 2008. A crowd is listening to the Apology to the Stolen Generations being delivered by Kevin Rudd. In the words of that particular Kevin, I admit I 'blubbed' just hearing it again - in part for the squandered hope that it represents. As the crowd disperses, two female reporters appear. At opposite ends of the stage, they each interview a woman. One of the interviewees we recognise as old Alice from Scene 1. The other seems to be telling the same story, except from a stolen child's point of view. It was 1964... The baby was three weeks old... The two women never meet.

This is as near to perfect as a theatre experience gets for me. It's so humbly staged and yet so beautiful, artful and edifying it makes you wonder how idiotic enterprises like Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark are even contemplated, much less realised. Not that I've seen it mind but my instinct is to go with the 100% stinker rating from the people who have.

Would I be That's So Pants if I didn't produce one little quibble? I think not. Barney! Top up needed here please. There's one thing I think Pecan Summer is lacking and that's a confrontation between the male voices. Don't get me wrong - I love that this show is all about the women. But I want to hear a complete complement of male and female voices. I think I've spotted the perfect opportunity. Although the show certainly pulls no punches in terms of its statements of grievance, it is missing one very obvious trick. It needs a distinctive voice to carry the political counterpoint.

The aforementioned William Cooper, founder of the Australian Aboriginal League, famously led a delegation of the League to protest at the German Embassy in Melbourne following Kristallnacht in 1938. He delivered a petition condemning the 'cruel persecution of the Jewish people by the Nazi government of Germany'. Cooper continued to protest against the Nazis until his death. He was a Yorta Yorta man who had lived at Cummeragunja. His name is mentioned by the men at the meeting just before the walk-off.

I can't help thinking about the potential of Cooper becoming a character in this opera. I imagine him arriving at the mission to inspire the men instead of just being spoken about in passing. I can almost hear him articulating the arguments for freedoms and rights. Pecan Summer wants for a little more eloquence in that department. I can even conjure the image of him vocally duelling with the nasty mission manager, McGuiggan. Perhaps there's a reason this couldn't happen. Maybe in this sensitive arena the truth just can't be stretched that far, not even by a miracle maker like Deborah Cheetham. But I can dream.

Wherever you are in the world tonight, I hope you get to see this show one day. It's a story that very much wants and needs to be told.