Brisbane has some wonderful and long forgotten tales from her big-little-town past and it’s great to see some of these stories being dusted off and brought back to life.
In 2007, Director Kate Cherry teamed up with playwright Reg Cribb and Australian jazz icon James Morrison to bring one particular story to the stage in a swing-dancing, jazzed up play called Boundary Street which performed to sold out audiences at this year’s Brisbane Festival.
During World War Two, American Troops were stationed in Brisbane to defend the Pacific from the ‘yellow peril’ and they brought with them things never seen before on local streets: African American soldiers, jazz music and a new wave of racial tension that saw Boundary Street once again used as the demarcation line to separate blacks from whites.
Australia was at the height of the White Australia Policy and Indigenous people were still required to carry permission slips to move about town, but through firm negotiations on the part of Roosevelt, the conditional freedom of the ‘negro’ troops into Brisbane city was secured. The Dr Carver Club was swiftly set up to entertain them (and keep them out of sight) and it was here they found favour with white Australian women who were bored, deserted or bereft by their own serviceman. The Dr Carver Club is where Boundary Street is set.
Reviewers of the much awaited 2011 premiere in Perth slammed Boundary Street citing stereotypical characters as a major turn-off. Admittedly, during the (lengthy) opening scene as Solly, Joe and Lester (Christopher Kirby, Terry Yeboah, Kenneth Ransom) disembarked, I too shuddered, concerned that a couple of hours of African American caricatures was about to be unleashed on the Powerhouse audience but my fears were quickly allayed. This story is set in 1944, a time when prejudices and opinions were formed based on stereotypes and not necessarily on fact. In some respects all the characters were revealed as light hearted asides to their stereotypical selves. There are some giggle-worthy moments as Aussies and ‘Yanks’ attempt to interact and that old Australian naivety is nicely revisited in lines from Prime Minister Curtain as he addresses the country.
Matt Dyktynski was an affable narrator and owner of the Dr Carver Club. Walt Roosevelt proved diverse and amusing as the white buddy to the jazz seeking crew but underneath the swinging dance moves and great live music, a deeper storyline lurks. Rosie (Gina Williams) an indigenous Australian with singing aspirations who has permission to work at the club, finds comfort and encouragement from Joe, who, being from the American South identifies with Rosie’s situation the most. Rosie’s story could perhaps have been further developed as her life mirrors the prejudice that the troops tried to leave behind them but also provides a stinging irony when white Australians sided with the African American’s who are persecuted by their own MP’s.
The good times swiftly come to an end when Lester is shot dead when found on the wrong side of the river after escorting Polly home. When the Americans finally ship out, they are leaving a much changed Brisbane.
Undoubtedly the highlight of the show was seeing James Morrison and his, mostly related, band perform Morrison’s compositions. Emma Pask’s divine voice sent a buzz around the crowd. The on stage cabaret seating however was under-used; it would have been great to see those audience members invited to join in the dancing, giving a bit more atmosphere to the club.
Boundary Street, with some development, would translate nicely to the big screen, joining the ranks of other great Australian stories such as Muriel’s Wedding. Perhaps it is because this story is about my town or that I am a true-blue Jazz lover, but Boundary Street had me swinging all the way home. I really hope to see another season of this sell-out show in Brisbane as many of my friends missed out on tickets.