What a rare, generous and uncomfortable thing Coranderrk is. There are no visible tricks here; no intricate framing devices or leaps back and forth in time. But there is: a witness stand, a desk, some chairs, a rack of costumes and nine performers. For 80 minutes, we are invited to sit, watch and bear witness to what unfolded in the Parliamentary Coranderrk Inquiry of 1881.
The Minutes of Evidence project is an ongoing collaboration between researchers, performance artists, educators and other community groups. The project seeks to raise awareness in the Australian population about the effects of colonialism in this country. The theatre show forms one branch of the multi-disciplinary project, and has been performed in several iterations since 2011. It’s a verbatim theatre piece based on the minutes of evidence from a Parliamentary Inquiry into whether or not the Indigenous population of the Coranderrk station should be moved off the land and the station be shut down.
The website for the Minutes of Evidence Project sums this play up better than I can:
'Not a story of "black vs. white", Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country pays tribute to the resilience and adaptability of a people who rose to the challenge despite all odds, appropriating the power of the written word and white political discourse to demand justice, dignity and self-determination, while also celebrating the spirit of friendship and genuine collaboration between Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people. It offers a lesson in justice that still holds today.'
There is deep complexity here. The founder and first manager of the Coranderrk station, John Green, is beloved of the Indigenous people and claims to treat them as “free men”; yet there is still an immense paternalism and injustice in the system in which Mr Green is operating. The Chairman of the Inquiry speaks slow and loud as though assuming the Indigenous witnesses will not understand him on some occasions, but treats them with dignity on others, even going so far as to publicly shame a station manager who claims the right to corporal punishment of the workers on the station.
Some of the most remarkable moments of the piece come when we see the bigotry of the white settlers come into violent contact with the dignity and strength of the Indigenous witnesses. One such moment occurs around an incident where a young Indigenous boy was badly beaten. First, the boy himself gives testimony. Then, the abominable Rev. Strickland –uninvited – narrates his own version of the event. In the context of a fictional piece, the audience may be tempted to suggest that the playwright has created an unfair caricature of this wicked man. But these are words lifted directly from the minutes of evidence. They are undeniable. And, devastatingly, many of the testimonies and scenes are as true today as they were then.
I went to see this play with a tourist from Germany who I met the night before. After the show, she told me that this chapter of our history seemed awful. She asked whether Coranderrk was a famous case that was taught in schools. I had to tell her that it wasn’t. She asked whether the Indigenous people were successful in their petition. I had to tell her that shortly after the inquiry, many Indigenous people were forced out of the station. She said that Anne Bon and John Green must surely be quite famous figures in our history. No.
All of the performances were stunning. Somehow, the characters all came alive and filled the room, yet space was still left for the words to truly be heard. It is a rigorous, disciplined work; utterly transportative, breathtaking, present. It’s remarkable for an Australian show to have such a long life as this show has had, but I sincerely hope that this is just the beginning. This story must be heard. This is essential, thrilling work.
Coranderrk: We Will Show The Country
By Giordano Nanni and Andrea James
Directed by Giordano Nanni
Based on the original 2010 verbatim production directed by Rachael Maza
Performed by Uncle Jack Charles, Jim Daly, Richard Bligh, Glenn Shae, David Patterson, Greg Fryer, Pauline Whyman, Peter Finlay and Liz Jones
Design by Bronwyn Pringle
Stage management by Sarah McKenzie
Presented as part of the Minutes of Evidence project www.minutesofevidence.com.au
Some performances will be followed by a Q & A. For details, contact La Mama.
La Mama Courthouse Carlton
3-7 August 2016