Wharf 1 Theatre, May 25


It could easily have been hammered together as a soapbox, but instead Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman built a play. They wrote a series of stories adding up to the big one that won’t go away: the original inhabitants of this continent woke up one day to find thieves stealing their land. Not content with that, the thieves bullied, harassed, brutalised and killed them, and, just for good measure, stole their children.

Elaine Crombie. Photos: Joseph Mayers.

Although this is 233-year-old news, the harassment and deaths in custody continue, just as they did when Enoch and Mailman penned the play in 1995 – the first time many First Nations people saw themselves represented in a theatre. This production, directed by Shari Sebbens and starring Elaine Crombie as The Woman, is Sydney Theatre Company’s fourth.

As The Woman says at the end, “Everything has its time”, and the play has had facelifts in both 2008 and 2021, now ending now on a note of hope harmonised with pragmatism. With the writers’ blessing, Sebbens, Crombie and assistant director Ian Michael have added an epilogue: The 7 Actions of Healing, in which we can all participate – and if there’s one thing we can do well as a community, it’s pitch in.

The play still begins with the litany of woes on a big screen; still lays the seven phases of Indigenous history over Elisabeth Kubler-Ross’s stages of grief. Elizabeth Gadsby’s design has mounds of pitch-black earth, each covered with white shells, initially looking like so many giant echidnas sleeping on the stage. But when The Woman puts a cross on one mound, they instantly become so many graves.

Photos: Joseph Mayers.

The first story, Nana’s Story, has just begun when something extraordinary happens. Crombie dries and needs a prompt, someone shouts out support, the audience cheers, and suddenly the air’s intensified, because now we’re willing Crombie on. We have skin in the game. And she rises on that wave, so when the story reaches the oldies singing Delta Dawn at the big family gathering while the kids cringe, and Sebbens has included a singalong, the audience not only joins in enthusiastically, but some of them harmonise, and the daft song sends a chill down your spine.

“The one thing I find most comforting about death is that everyone’s got to do it,” The Woman tells us, whereupon she delivers a list of the people she’s happy will share her end – although they’re rather cheap laughs to milk. Much more affecting is when The Woman opens a suitcase containing photos of those dear to her who have died, and Crombie repeatedly kisses her fingers and touches one image – and repeatedly touches us. The impact is similar when, sitting on the stage and setting up a kinship system of earth and shells, she explains that some of the shells are the children. One by one puts them in the suitcase, and snaps shut the lid: they’ve been taken away, and the kinship system collapses.

A stand-up comedy routine (“Have you ever been Black?”) provides its intended relief, before we’re plunged into the deaths in custody issue, the big screen filling with dates upon which people have died, while The Woman tells us a scarifying account of one instance. Unfortunately Crombie again lost her way in this daunting hour-long monologue, but she quickly bounced back to lead us across the Harbour Bridge in the unforgettable Walk for Reconciliation in 2000, and then left us with seven ways to help.

Until June 19.