Steve HawkeSteve Hawke is in high spirits. Two weeks before the world premiere of Jandamarra, the playwright says with a grin; “I’m having more fun than I’ve ever had in my life”.

A joint production between Black Swan Theatre Company and Bunuba Films, Jandamarra tells of the legendary man who led the most successful indigenous resistance against white settlement in the Kimberly in the late 1890’s. Jandamarra was known as the black Ned Kelly, and it is a dramatic, epic story.

Astoundingly, this is Steve’s first play. Raised in Melbourne, the son of former Prime Minister Bob Hawke, he moved to the Kimberly in 1978 and stayed for over 15 years. “I’ve known and worked with the Bunuba people for a long time ... I worked with (them) on land claims, on organisational stuff ... so I have a relationship with Bunuba people.”

He was asked to join Bunuba Films, a company owned by the Bunuba people of Fitzroy Crossing, in 1994. They were trying to make a feature film of Jandamarra, and efforts came tantalizingly close before stalling. Then in 2004, Black Swans Artistic Director Tom Gutteridge approached Steve about transforming the story into a play.

Three years later, Jandamarra is about to open as part of the 2008 Perth International Arts Festival. Steve is pleased with how it is coming together, although he concedes as his first foray into theatre “I’m perhaps not in the best position to judge in terms of the technical sides of things ... but in terms of the vibe around it and the feel of it and the belief we all have in what we are doing, it is just going fantastically well”. 

There have been challenges, including the translation of scenes into the Bunuba language. At the beginning Steve “assumed without really thinking about it, that it just would not be possible to do language on stage”. It wasn’t until the first reading when one of the creatives asked if a scene could be done in Bunuba, did Steve realise it was possible.

“It transformed the whole project, that decision, to use language. It has transformed the feel of the play and the way people are able to participate in it. And the actual translation process itself was hugely exciting and stimulating for me and the women in Fitzroy (Crossing) who worked on it.”
{xtypo_quote_right}[Jandamarra] is a complex character. I mean he moved on either side of the frontier world, and was remarkable on both sides of the frontier.” {/xtypo_quote_right}
Steve is full of praise for the cast, which comprises well known performers as well as people making their stage debut. “The cast is amazing ... there are three blokes from Fitzroy making their stage debut, there is Ningali (Lawford-Wolf) who is a Fitzroy girl but not a Bunuba girl ... there is this fantastic bunch of people who have come together.”

“What happens is the guys from Fitzroy bring ... authenticity in terms of speaking language and knowing the context of the world the play comes from, and the other actors bring their knowledge and experience of acting. There is this really good vibe and interaction between them in which each of the groups brings something very real to the project... it’s a pretty good gang we’ve got.”
Jandamarra is theatre on an epic scale. It is the largest indigenous cast assembled since Bran Nue Day in the nineties. The cast speak three languages on a huge stage with seven metre high sets, complimented by animation, music and dance. It seems a fitting spectacle for a character that seemed larger than life. “He is a complex character; he is not a ... black and white character. I mean he moved on either side of the frontier world, and was remarkable on both sides of the frontier.”

The play has elements to appeal to everyone. Steve is in awe. “(He) rejected his own people, was working for the police, bringing his own people in in chains, shot his best friend, returned to his people, lead a three year guerilla war, took on the mantle of Jalgangurru (magic man or medicine man), and all this before he was killed at the age of 24. I mean it is a remarkable life.”

For a first time playwright, Steve has had a remarkable time as well. He agrees. “The raw material is pretty damn good and as a writer what more can you ask for?”

Jandamarra opens Feb 9. For further information, click here»

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