This engrossing theatrical documentary finely balances the search for political recognition with the moving personal narratives of Palm Island residents.
Beautiful One Day, co-produced by Ilbijerri Theatre Company and Version 1.0 with input from Belvoir associate director Eamon Flack, is a confident collaboration that seeks to unravel the controversial and emotional narrative threads that bind up the collective consciousness of the people of Palm Island. This was amplified by the unique atmosphere on opening night, as many audience members were related to characters being portrayed on stage and the power of the personal connections was palpable.
Palm Island was created in Northern Queensland as a de facto penal colony for Aboriginal people who were considered guilty of various infractions including: being ‘disruptive’; having fallen pregnant to a white man or being born with ‘mixed blood’. Governed by its own parliamentary Act, it was heavily repressive – so much so that even whistling and winking to members of the opposite sex was banned. The production exposes these absurdities as it traverses the wild rampage of Superintendent Robert Curry in the 1930’s, the general strike of 1957, forced removals and deaths in custody, among a host of stories.
The 2004 death in custody of Mulrunji Doomadgee after sustaining fatal internal injuries at the hands of a police officer, serves as the focus of grief, despair and anger for many of the characters. His death was followed by a week of unrest which culminated in riot battalions being set upon the residents of the island; a heavy-handed response from white Australia. The fact that Mulrunji’s real-life niece Kylie Doomadgee stars in the show, virulently denouncing the finding that his death was an accident, adds immensely to the power of verisimilitude on display and it is difficult not to be moved by this didacticism.
But the fine narrative fabric woven here transcends the understandably negative responses to this history of outrage, grief and depression, to celebrate the really beautiful aspects of the vivid culture of 'Palms'. Some of the most emotionally engaging aspects of the work are the video projections of extracts from interviews with actual community elders relating incidents from their lives. They are by no means rose-tinted retellings, noting the harshness of the conditions but also expressing their happiness and gratitude for the support and love of their community. Perhaps the meticulous researching and interviewing would be better suited to a documentary, and if political change is the goal of the production then arguably a documentary would have the greater media reach to effect this.
Version 1.0 has built a repertoire of documentary styles and this production draws on sources including official government letters, court transcripts, testimonies and court room re-enactments, which are skilfully integrated with clever sound design. The presence of Palm Island cultural consultant Magdalena Blackley was felt both on stage and in the conceptualism of the work as a whole, as was Rachael Maza’s (who is artistic director of Ilbijerri and performer). Kylie Doomadgee and Harry Reuben bought their own more youthful representation of community to their characters. Paul Dwyer and Jane Phegan did a great job of negotiating the tough terrain of portraying white oppression as well as white guilt, without ever seeming insincere or tokenistic. There is a lot of humour that helps carry the weight of the show, as when Dwyer’s white character keeps being interrupted whilst trying to tell one of his stories, in a comical reversal of the historical norm.
Regardless of your view on documentary theatre, this is one of the most unique and important performances of the year.
Rating: 4 stars out of 5
Beautiful One Day
Created by Sean Bacon, Magdalena Blackley, Kylie Doomadgee, Paul Dwyer, Eamon Flack, Rachael Maza, Jane Phegan, Harry Reuben & David Williams
A co-production with ILBIJERRI Theatre Company & version 1.0
Indigenous Theatre at Belvoir supported by The Balnaves Foundation
Devisor/ Audio Visual Designer: Sean Bacon
Devisor/Performer/Cultural Consultant: Magdalena Blackley
Devisor/Performer: Kylie Doomadgee
Devisor: Eamon Flack
Devisor/Performer: Rachael Maza
Devisor/Performer: Jane Phegan
Devisor/Performer: Harry Reuben
Devisor: David Williams
Set & Costume Design: Ruby Langton-Batty
Lighting Design: Frank Mainoo
Composer & Sound Design: Paul Prestipino
Stage Manager: Edwina Guiness
Upstairs Theatre, Belvoir, Surry Hills
17 November - 23 December