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March 04th 2013 print

Roger Franklin

Cue the applause for a tall tale of black oppression

Despite its improbable plot, critics are hailing a semi-autobiographical play by "emerging" Indigenous artist and grant recipient Nakkiah Lui. What a pity she didn't omit the tired cliches of black victimhood and simply tell her own story


Theatre buff and blogger Kevin Jackson is not one of your more astringent critics, and that good nature is so strong it managed to survive what might have been an otherwise trying night at the Belvoir Street Theatre. The production was This Heaven by up-and-coming Indigenous playwright Niakkiah Lui, recently gifted with a $20,000 Australia Council award.


Jackson reports that the actors did such a first-rate job of conveying the despair, alienation, racism and police brutality that is Lui’s rendering of Aboriginal life in Mount Druitt, it was not until later he came to realise what poor material they had been given to work with.

Here is his summary of a taxpayer-funded plot served with extra helpings of urban grit, rather than the large dose of salt its improbable twists deserve:

  1. There is a contemporary indigenous family, upwardly mobile: father, Robert Gordon and mother, Joan (Tessa Rose), and two children, Sissy (Jada Alberts) and Ducky (Travis Cardonna) living in the Westrern suburb of Sydney, Mount Druitt.
  2. The father is a highly respected and well known identity in the local community.
  3. The mother, a middle class mum working as a public servant as the Aboriginal liaison officer in the local police station, – a well known identity and member of the police station staff.
  4. The daughter, Sissy is only one semester away from attaining her Law degree – as, coincidently, is the author of this play, Ms Lui.
  5. A blind son, Ducky, is frustrated, unable to find work.
  6. We are told  before the play begins the son Ducky, physically blind and also drunk, drove a car, with the respected member of the community, his father Robert, sitting beside him (odd not pondered in the play). The car runs off the road and into a roadside fence.
  7. The police are called to the incident.
  8. The father lies to the police (Odd. Not pondered in the play) and takes responsibility as the driver (to protect is son?).
  9. The two men are taken into custody and escorted to the local police station.
  10. There is an incident in the cells. Police enter the cell to quell the disturbances.
  11. There is noise of physical abuse heard by a young constable, Ryan (Joshua Anderson) coming from the cells. He goes to check.
  12. He is advised to forget the incident and go home early and forget the incident.
  13. The father is found dead, in custody, in the cell. The family are encouraged to trust the law for justice by lawyer, James (Eden Falk).
  14. The investigation into the incident finds the injuries on the body could be the result of the car accident and not necessarily of a ‘bashing’.
  15. The presence of the son Ducky in the cell and his evidence of what occurred in the cell is discarded because of his blindness.
  16. The investigation declares that there is not sufficient evidence and/or the ambiguity of it is such, that it will not produce an outcome against the police. No action will be taken – the incident will go no further.
  17. The family is offered compensation of $9,000. (Odd. Is that what would happen, as there is no provable crime, no possible way of proving liability against the state? I am not sure. Struck me as odd.)
  18. Son feels remorse and guilt over his part in allowing his father to take the blame as the driver of the car. He does not dwell on his own reckless action of driving the car, doubly incapacitated, which is the catalyst of the whole ‘stream’ of events. 
  19. Odd that the Police who would know the high status of the father in the community would risk physically abusing him. Odd, that knowing that he is the husband of one of their own staff, Joan Gordon- the Indigenous Liaison Officer – they would do such a thing.
  20. Odd that the daughter, Sissy, with only one semester from achieving her Law degree did not have the cool of knowledge of the law to have her question her actions and culpability in the organising of the riot. How she could abandon such difficult years of preparation to serve her community as a lawyer? Not dealt with in the play.
  21. Odd that the young police constable, Ryan, does not step up to tell the truth. The systemic pressures being so great as to perpetrate such criminal behaviour. Not pondered too deeply in the play.
  22. That the experienced lawyer is not able to counsel a law student more accurately, and provide legal avenues of action for the family..

Lui will not be too dismayed by Jackson’s quibbles, as most critics have been effusively positive. The Australian’s John McCallum wrote of gaining a fresh perspective on Aboriginal life and of how he now accepts “violent protest as a completely understandable response to the pain and outrage that urban Indigenous people have experienced in the face of the violence that has been inflicted upon them.”

A scene from This Heaven.

At the Sydney Morning Herald, Jason Blake was moved by “passages of searing insight” – although not, presumably, by the wisdom of putting an intoxicated and legally blind youth behind the wheel of an automobile, the device upon which the entire plot hinges.

But the greatest gush came from Crikey’s man in the stalls, Lloyd Bradford Syke:

This isn’t mere political correctness, or bleeding heart leftist posturing. Lui comes from the coalface. She’s been there [Mount Druitt]. She was brought up there. She’s lived it every day of her life. Like the young Aboriginal man I knew who was stopped by police, to be questioned about a nearby crime, despite the fact he didn’t in any way match the description given to them. Perhaps they were colour blind. Or perhaps they need to be. The play, she says, “is about the loyalty of a place and how it can destroy you.”

Ah, that “authenticity”! Reviewers always find it so appealing, but others, who perhaps visit the outer-suburban “coalface” of racial oppression more often, might see the further peddling of some very tired clichés and stereotypes. While Belvoir audiences were invited to indulge in a visceral identification with the downtrodden and hopeless of Sydney’s very own bantustan – perhaps even to share Lui’s vision, detailed in the program, of her play as “my Molotov cocktail. I want to burn things down” — the polls have been showing the federal seat of Chifley, with Mt Druitt at its centre, might very well side with the Coalition come September 14. No doubt this refusal to man the barricades remains a mystery to inner-city luvvies flitting from one tax-subsidised exercise in theatrical agitprop to the next, outrage and tissues ever at the ready for an on-cue snivel at the injustice of it all.

Dramatic emotion is a matter of personal taste, of course, and if audiences prefer the familiar to a less-heard and far more encouraging representation of an authentic Aboriginal life, well that is their perogative. As it happens, that unwritten play would be Lui’s very own story – the real one.

Such a production would have stressed the importance of parental involvement and its effect on children who are encouraged to strive and achieve, for that is what Lui’s own parents did when she was growing up. Interviewed at length by the ABC in 2004, when the playwright-to-be was about to take up a $65,000 scholarship to a Canadian finishing school, they were the picture of a solid, middle-class couple investing time and effort in their kids’ betterment. While the teenage Lui was being shuttled to a Penrith amateur dramatic company, for example, her little sister was getting the coaching and encouragement to pursue her dream of becoming an Olympic figure skater.

As for instilling the value of work, well her parents, Jenny Beale and Jack Gibson, are the only two employees of the non-profit and income-tax exempt Butucarbin Aboriginal Corporation, which last year brought in $251,102 in grants and whose most recent audited report presents a picture of robust financial health. With total operating revenue for the 2012 financial year of $342,888 and net assets of $1,082,856, the couple have built upon the opportunities presented by federal, state and local spending on Indigenous betterment.

Interestingly, Lui’s $20,000 Dreaming Award from the Australia Council’s  was paid to Butucarbin, according to the financial report, and $12,500 of that sum subsequently dispersed. (All of Bitucarbin’s reports, audits, filings and board members can be inspected here)

But who wants to see a play about a talented, intelligent and ambitious young woman from a solid family making all the right moves? As the critics affirm, it is much more entertaining to applaud Lui’s theatrical Molotovs arcing  through the fictional night of intolerance and racial subjugation.

When reality threatens to intervene, the play’s the thing.

Roger Franklin is the editor of Quadrant Online