Aussie Theatre’s Annie Ferguson sat down over an early morning coffee with Rachael Maza, Artistic Director of Ilbijerri Theatre Company, to discuss Melbourne’s premier season of Beautiful One Day, presented by Ilbijerri in conjunction with Arts House, Belvoir and Version 1.0.
Beautiful One Day is a work of documentary theatre that jams a crowbar under the known history of Palm Island and offers a re-telling from a voice that is seldom heard – the voice of the Indigenous community. After a six-week season at Belvoir, the artists have rekindled the show with gusto, trimming and reworking the text to its theatrical best.
The catalyst for this production came after the death of an Aboriginal man in custody on Palm Island in 2004. In response the community presented a direct challenge to the authority of police power and the police station was set alight. These events made headlines across Australia and it quickly became an issue of interest to the theatre makers at Belvoir. Belvoir teamed up with Version 1.0 and Ilbijerri before beginning a series of trips where the artists engaged in conversations with the local community of Palm Island to discuss the Island’s history and the effects of the recent events.
On these visits they met, among others, the mayor and community elders. Of particular importance was Magdalena Blackley, an elder with a strong family history of leadership and influence on the island. Magdalena was such a strong presence in these conversations that she is now a performer in the show, along with two other Palm Islanders.
Maza speaks of her experience on Palm Island as educational, as an opportunity to see the island in its true light and not through the lens of the sensationalist media. What she discovered was that the people of Palm Island were a very proud and resilient people, with a great knowledge of their own history. This is the Palm Island that does not get splashed across the covers of newspapers, and this is the Palm Island that gets its retelling in Beautiful One Day.
The Palm Island of newspaper reports is normally one of disarray and dysfunction, but when everything calms down and the reporters go away, the people of Palm Island more often than not get forgotten. The Island has a history of bad management since the early 1900s when it was run as a penal colony under the Act. The government has often taken a strong authoritarian stance against law-breakers, leading to a high rate of arrests and, not surprisingly, deaths in custody. Maza tentatively uses the word “conspiracy” when she refers to the way Palm Island is portrayed in the media, but really she is more interested in getting the truth out there. “We want to get the crowbar under the numbness that flows over us and say ‘Let’s keep having the conversation Australia’, because it’s not okay. It’s not okay that people die in custody and no one gets made accountable”.
Beautiful One Day attempts to engage audiences in an often forgotten or neglected conversation, and it empowers them. Maza passionately believes in the power of knowledge. She reflects on her own feelings of dis-empowerment, “I know what it is like to feel dis-empowered as a citizen of the world. It is easy to say ‘I don’t understand the issue’, or whatever, and in that moment you become ineffective and unproductive.” She is keen to break that cycle of powerlessness and apathy, especially in her work as a theatre-maker, and especially in Beautiful One Day.
The difficulty with Beautiful One Day is to make this work of documentary theatre theatrical and entertaining. This has been a challenge for the actors in the rehearsal process, especially when dealing with texts that are fact-heavy, such as historical events and court documents. In order to introduce more theatricality into the show the text has been cut back to its ‘bare necessities’. This process has been both exciting and nerve-wracking for the actors, as the script was finalised just weeks before opening night.
Beautiful One Day promises to be an important work that engages in a dialogue that we too often prefer to put in the too hard basket. A piece of theatre that is both political and entertaining, audiences can be assured of a thought-provoking and emotionally resonating experience.
Beautiful One Day is playing at the North Melbourne Town Hall from November 26 – December 1. For information and ticketing, visit http://www.melbourne.vic.gov.au/ArtsHouse