Friday 10 June 2016

Beautiful One Day - Theatre Review

When: April 24 - 25
Where: Footscray Community Arts Centre
Performed by:  Magdalena Blackley, Kylie Doomadgee, Paul Dwyer, Rachael Maza, Jane Phegan, and Harry Reuben.
AV by:  Sean Bacon

Beautiful One Day is an amazing piece of documentary theatre produced by Ilbijerri Theatre, Belvoir Street, and Version 1.0 about Palm Island in Queensland.  The show was created in 2011, but is so significant and elicits such strong responses it has gone on to be performed around the country and was presented at Footscray Community Arts Centre last week.

The title is a play on the Queensland tourism slogan ‘beautiful one day, perfect the next’.  Tongue in cheek, but with a stinging lash, the play makes a mockery of the slogan as the tropical perfection of the island is pulled away to reveal the appalling cultural history of the last century.

In 1914 there were only fifty native residents on Palm Island so the Queensland Government appropriated the island and turned it into a segregated community to house what they termed ‘disruptive’ indigenous people on the mainland. Infractions which could get you sent to the island included being pregnant to a white man or being born of ‘mixed blood’.

The play is divided into four ‘acts’ which are bookmarked against some of the most significant events over the course of the last century.  These events are not just isolated occurances though – they had huge significance for the mainland and are as much a part of the entire country’s history as they are for Queensland.

Act one introduces us to the life of the penal colony, outlining the strict controls and racial segregation.  Maza tells us the story of her grandfather who was sent to Palm Island for being disruptive, and then removed from Palm Island for being disruptive.  It is a beautiful irony that brings a cheeky sparkle to Maza’s eyes.  You can tell the spirit of her grandfather lives on through her and is doing important work just as he was!

The second ‘act’ addresses the 1957 strike.  Up until 1960 all the inhabitants were required to perform thirty hours of work a week for no pay and appallingly insufficient rations.  Albie Geia led the strike for five days until the people involved were forcibly removed from the island.

We are then taken to the incident most people are generally aware of – the death in custody in 2004.  Murunji Doomadgee (uncle of Kylie Doomadgee) died at age 36 one hour after being taken into custody.  He died of wounds normally associated with head on motor vehicle collisions which the local policeman said was caused by him ‘accidently’ falling on Doomadgee.  We are taken through a re-enactment under trial conditions, with real court transcripts and official documents as the source text.  Watching this you can’t help but be disgusted and terrified that the whole event was, in the end, legally sanctified.  Even more appalling is that although the police officer was acquitted, Lex Wotton (a community leader) was convicted of inciting the riots that followed – a ‘riot’ which included little violence and no significant injuries.

One of the great impacts of this play is the direct connection most of the performers have to the community and the history.  Maza’s grandfather was incarcerated there, Doomadgee’s uncle died in police custody, Reuben lives on the island now, and Blackley is a cultural custodian for the islanders.

The content is heavy and the message is important, but what is the most important aspect of Beautiful One Day is the tone in which it is presented.  The cast are relaxed and informal and play with each other and the audience.  A great deal of craft is employed to make sure that the audience feel comfortable and connected with what is about to take place.

The performers are themselves as storytellers, and break into personal jokes and asides to keep the feeling light, and whenever possible jokes abound and laughter – at themselves and each other – rings through the theatre. 

In many respects this magnifies the horrors and inhumanities visited upon the residents of Palm Island.  The cast are serious when they need to be serious and there is a lot of information and facts which have to be communicated along the way.

This show has been labelled ‘documentary theatre’ and it is a great example of how theatre can impart facts and truths in a human and touching and entertaining way and have a massive impact.  Ilbijerri, in particular, have developed a strong repertoire of documentary theatre including Jack Charles V The Crown and Corranderk.  As a way of helping the Australian community as a whole understand the indigenous experience there is no equal.

The final ‘act’ is a range of video excerpts of Palm Islanders looking forward and explaining their problems.  In 1999 Palm Island was listed in the Guiness Book of World Records as being the most violent place in the world outside a combat zone and it has almost 90% unemployment.  It is a community of four thousand people with services for a community of five hundred.  As one of the men in the video explains, the violence and drinking and unemployment are all interconnected.  They say things are better than they were, but the big thing the island needs is jobs.

As a piece of theatre, this show is absolutely wonderful.  As a chronicle of our history this is appalling and amazing at the same time.  As a step towards Australia’s future, Beautiful One Day is without equal.

4.5 Stars

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