Kath Walker, or Oodgeroo Noonuccal as the aboriginal poet and activist would later reclaim as her name, found herself on a hijacked plane in Tunisia in 1974. Palestinian extremists were terrorising the passengers, including a German banker targeted for execution.
Oodgeroo pleads with the terrorists not to kill him. As an aboriginal woman she relates to a people persecuted in their own land, but insists violence isn’t the answer to advance their cause. Despite her pleas, the man is eventually killed.
The scene provides a prevailing juxtaposition on which indigenous activist and writer Sam Watson (with dramaturg Ian Brown) bases his biographical treatment of the celebrated aboriginal matriarch. Oodgeroo spent her life fighting for civil rights for the first Australians, but also fought against her own son whose burning resentment manifested in more violent struggle. As Oodgeroo’s poetic 1962 Charter of Rights (cleverly woven into Watson’s script) stated:
“We want hope, not racialism / Brotherhood, not ostracism / Black advance, not white ascendance / Make us equals, not dependants / We need help, not exploitation / We want freedom, not frustration / Not control, but self-reliance / Independence, not compliance…”
Oodgeroo’s was a celebrated life; an inspirational lightening rod to a then fledgling reconciliation movement. Oodgeroo – Bloodline to Country, an ambitious work from the modest La Boite company, is a patchwork pastiche of key events and family struggles that marked her journey from the Noonuccal lands of North Stradbroke Island to the mainland and a national and international fight for recognition of indigenous people. There are gaping holes in the narrative – her Second World War service, for example – but the carefully selected scenes are telling moments, if not always seamlessly stitched together.
Watson, with permission and guidance from the family, presents Oodgeroo as a guileless, kindly pacifist. Roxanne McDonald certainly evokes a grandmotherly charm and, despite some flubbed lines on opening night, quickly wins you over. It works well buttressed against the uncompromising character of son Denis, which Simon Hapea injects with frightening zeal. With Hapea also appearing as the Palestinian terrorist, the allegory is pertinent.
But other characters are not nearly as well fleshed out. That’s understandable perhaps; this is not their story after all. But it leads to a cliché-ridden representation of white oppression, almost comically marring a genuinely moving story. It is a fantastical portrait when the reality was more than powerful enough. Experienced director Sean Mee, La Boite’s previous artistic maestro, should have righted a ship that often veers into hackneyed territory.
The unfortunate mailman delivering news of sanctions to the Noonuccal clan is laughably ocker; Oodgeroo’s adoptive parents are portrayed with Wilde-esque primness; while the relationship between Oodgeroo and a campaigning white lawyer (played shrilly by Emma Pursey) is a reconciliation sledgehammer. Even Pearl (Rhonda Purcell), the young aboriginal woman Oodgeroo takes under her wing, seems a little naïve. Too, the presence of Darren Brady – as ‘good son’ Vivian and the play’s quasi-narrator – is jarring in parts. His dance moves are wonderfully hypnotic, but the whimsically forbidding recitation becomes a little tired.
Visually, Oodgeroo captures the imagination. Placing this vast story under a starry sky, designer Helen Jacobs creates a dreamtime world simply but emotively. Inspired lighting (Jason Organ) and sound (Phil Slade) design heighten the drama and bring a palpable energy to many scenes.
But for a story that preaches racial equality, “not white ascendance”, Oodgeroo’s powerful and timely story is too often bogged down in ideological earnestness.
A La Boite Theatre Company Commission and World Premiere for the 150th anniversary of the State of Queensland
OODGEROO - BLOODLINE TO COUNTRY
by Sam Watson
Director: Sean Mee
Venue: Roundhouse Theatre, Musk Ave. Kelvin Grove Urban Village
Season: 30 June - 11 July
Times: Mon, Tues & Wed 6.30pm, Thurs-Sat 8pm
Matinee: 11 July 2pm
After Show Discussion: 10 July
Prices: From $20
Bookings: laboite.com.au or 3007 8600
WARNING: this production contains high level, infrequent coarse language; high level, infrequent adult themes and medium level violence.