William Cooper has long been a hero to the Jewish community, both here and in Israel; but too few Australians know of him. Wanting to tell his story, playwrights Elise Hearst and and Andrea James have written themselves into a performance that seeks to re-tell the experiences of their grandparents' generation and, in doing so, highlight issues that are as relevant today as they were eighty years ago. Elise's grandparents, Hans and Alice Herskovics, escaped Nazi Vienna for a new life in Australia; Andrea's great-great-uncle, William Cooper, grew up on the Maloga and Cummeragunja missions, was active in fighting for the rights and recognition of Aboriginal people, and led an Indigenous protest against Kristallnacht (The Night of Broken Glass), the wave of anti-Jewish violence that took place throughout Nazi occupied Europe overnight on 9/10 November 1938.
A cast of five, including Elise and Andrea, take on multiple roles as they lead the audience on a journey back and forth through time. The central, connecting story is that of the two playwrights, Elise a white, middle-class Jew and Andrea a working-class Aboriginal. We are given an honest, often confronting, insight into their process as they seek to discover a mutually acceptable way of telling William Cooper's story. The two often find themselves in open conflict over the relative value and harshness of their individual experiences, their standing in today's world, and the portrayal of their people: should a white person play an Aboriginal, does an actor need a big nose to play a Jew?
Elise plays her character as a naive do-gooder, often prompting angry responses from Andrea's character, but also a good deal of laughter from the audience. I particularly liked the scene in which Elise intrudes on an Aboriginal gathering, wanting to support them in their decision to take action against injustice, only to have Andrea tell her to 'get out of my scene'!
The scenes between Elise and Andrea are interspersed with 'flashbacks' to earlier times. Each of them plays one of their ancestors: Elise her grandfather Hans and Andrea her great-grandfather Thomas Shadrack James who taught the young William Cooper. They are joined by the other cast members in scenes which reveal some of the experiences of their ancestors.
All of the action takes place in a Gym (think of the Fitzroy Stars Aboriginal Community Gym in Collingwood). Kevin Kieran-Molloy, Shari Sebbens and Guy Simon are practising basketball as the play opens. With minimal props and costumes, T shirts sometimes with emojis, sometimes with the names of characters, are used to identify characters from the past and, with lighting and sound, facilitate the movements back and forth in time. The sound of bouncing balls on a darkened stage create an ominous sense of foreboding in one particular scene, and there is great energy in a scene of angry confrontation between Elise and Andrea; red balls fly in all directions.
The personal and artistic courage of playwrights/actors Elise and Andrea resonates throughout Bright World. They have dared to explore, in public, their personal memories and direct experiences, of prejudice, violence, dispossession and racism, with an honesty and humour that eventually brings them to an awkward understanding. They have avoided any simple answers whilst bringing to light issues surrounding historical trauma and dispossession that need to be brought out into the open and discussed honestly within our society.
Bright World is entertaining and thought provoking and that's what I want in my theatre.
by Andrea James and Elise Hearst
Director Paige Rattray
Venue: Theatre Works, St Kilda
Dates: 13 – 30 April 2016.
Tickets: $35 – $26