Black Theatre (Sydney)


Black Theatre (Sydney)

The National Black Theatre was a theatre company run by a small but dedicated group of Aboriginal people based in the Sydney suburb of Redfern. The original concept for the theatre grew out of political struggles, especially the land rights demonstrations which at the time were being organised by the Black Moratorium Committee. The centre held workshops in modern dancing, tribal dancing, writing for theatre, karate and photography, and provided a venue for new Aboriginal drama. It also ran drama classes under Brian Syron who conducted the first of a planned series of six week fulltime workshops for his students who included Jack Davis, Freddie Reynolds, Maureen Watson, Lillian Crombie, and Hyllus Maris. These people went on to become household names in the Aboriginal community for their work in the Australian theatre and film industries.

History

1972

Street theatre was well organised by the Aboriginal community in Redfern by 1972 as a form of political action. Its value in publicising issues was used to support many protests and rallies in the early 70s. Gary Foley recalls one action to support the establishment of a legal service. Informal and formal theatrical performances were staged to raise awareness about the tent embassy and the land rights demonstrations which at the time were being organised by the Black Moratorium Committee. [ Casey, Maryrose "Creating frames; contemporary indigenous theatre 1967-1990" St. Lucia: University of Queensland Press, 2004 pp 44-45 ]

sketches and street theatre ... in hotels, in lounges of pubs... We performed as black theatre groups, as street groups, in the marches. Black theatre would get involved with all the political demonstrations. [Gerry Bostock] [ Bostock, Gerry 'Black theatre', in J Davis and B Hodge, eds, "Aboriginal writing today", Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies, Canberra 1985, pp 67-70 ]

Workshops

After working in the United States as a director and actor for eight years Brian Syron returned to Sydney and following his award winning directorial production at The Ensemble Theatre, Kirribilli, of "Fortune and Men's Eyes" he held acting classes in 1969 for Indigenous actors including Gary Foley and Dennis Walker at the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs.

He is still interested in helping to create a black theatre in Sydney and will be willing to train Aboriginal people who are interested in becoming professional actors. [ [http://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/dawn/docs/v21/s01/12.pdf 'Aboriginal actor makes good'] in "New Dawn" April 1972]

Paul Coe, a law student, approached Jenny van de Steenhaven, also known as Sheehan, a non Aboriginal drama student to run classes for young people in 1971. They were given a grant of $870 to continue the workshops and play readings in February, 1972. [ Robinson, Raymond Stanley [http://handle.uws.edu.au:8081/1959.7/76 Dreaming tracks : history of the Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Scheme, 1972-1979 : its place in the continuum of Australian indigenous dance and the contribution of its African American founder Carole Y. Johnson.] [Masters thesis] University of Western Sydney, 2000 p 26]

An art workshop was involved in the printing of posters (including those for the N'ingla a-na rallies) and in ceramics, sculpture, carving, etc. "N'ingla a-na" (1972) is a 72 minute documentary directed by European Australians Alessandro Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan and it is considered

an historically significant film, one of the first to examine the land rights movement and Aboriginal activism...highlighting the work of the Aboriginal Health and Legal Service and the national Black Theatre as examples of the growing movement for self determination [ Alessandro Cavadini and Carolyn Strachan "N'ingla a-na" Sydney Filmmakers Co-op 1972 16mm film 72 minutes Distribution booklet ]

The writer's workshop studied theatre, provided group material, wrote plays, and supplied some of the scripts for the revue. It was also involved in various long-term programs and the assessing and analysing of scripts.

Carole Johnson, an African American dancer, toured Australia with the Eleo Pomare Dance Company in February and March. They witnessed the media coverage of the tent embassy, and the attempts to remove it, and understood the human rights issues.

Eleo insisted that Aboriginal people be invited guests to his performances ... He had the first three rows reserved for them .. a first. [ Robinson pp 15-20 ]
Carole stayed in Sydney and was introduced to Jenny Isaacs who was working for the Australian Council for the Arts.

She told me she'd be here anyway, could she work here. I said Redfern mob would love to see your performance; we organised a bus to get people there. Within two weeks we drummed up a grant application for Carole to stay on the basis she would be doing workshops. [Jenni Isaacs, 1996 quoted by Robinson, p 23 ]

Carole started classes in May, using St Luke's Church hall by the end of the year. Participants included Euphemia Bostock, her daughter Tracey, Wayne Nicol, Norma Williams (Ingram), and Elsie and Joanne Vesper. [ Robinson p 26. ] The dance workshop was filmed in Sharing the dream.

Funding

Coe and Sheehan applied on behalf of ‘Black Theatre’ for funding from the Council of the Arts for training, to expand the drama workshops. [Paul Coe interview in "N'ingla a-na" quoted by Casey, p 47 ] They were refused on the grounds of ‘lack of expertise’ and 'inexperience’. Other similar, equally inexperienced, groups received funding when they were formally established – APG in 1970 and Nimrod in 1971. Casey outlines this as one of a number of obstacles they faced.

In mid 1972 Bob Maza was invited to come to Sydney, to share his experience. He had been been working with Jack Charles, at Nindethana in Melbourne, and had had a number of roles in television. A grant of $500 from the Council of the Arts went towards his train ticket and relocation costs. [ Bostock, Lester "Black Theatre at Redfern" Hindsight, ABC Radio Social History Unit, 1997. ] His ‘professional’ status did attract the funding that was needed. $5500 was granted by the Council of the Arts. [ Casey p 52] Maza had been to the United States in 1970 as part of a delegation to the Pan African Conference. He and Sol Bellear spent some time working and studying with the National Black Theatre of Harlem. Perhaps inspired by that, Redfern's National Black Theatre took shape. Also helpful, Maza had experience writing his own material, as existing texts weren’t meeting their needs. They rented a house at 174 Regent Street, and for workshops were given use of the hall named Murawina behind a church by Wayside Chapel and the Aboriginal Women’s Action Group who operated the children’s breakfast program. (Shepherd Street Chippendale?) Maza ran the workshops when Coe and Sheehan had to resume their studies.

When Carole went to South East Asia in September to continue her investigation of dance cultures, Phemie Bostock, assisted by Wayne Nicole, took over the coordination of the Dance Group. Carole proposed an Aboriginal Community Arts - Education Centre to the Aboriginal Arts Advisory Committee, encapsulating the needs and wants of the community. Social outlets, and cultural and training programs were needed in Redfern. [ Robinson pp 34-36]

First performances

The first formal and publicly acknowledged performance by Black Theatre was street theatre in 1972 to publicise the Black Moratorium and the Gove land rights claim against Nabalco, (now Rio-Tinto Alcan). This was broadcast nationally by This Day Tonight. [Bostock, Lester [http://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/dawn/docs/v22/s04/15.pdf 'Black theatre in New South Wales'] in "New Dawn" September 1973 [possibly a paper from the first National Seminar on Aboriginal Arts] ]

The next performance was to lead the Aboriginal land rights demonstration, held on the 14th July across the country [ "In Sydney Bob Maza of Nimrod Street Theatre conducts a street theatre workshop at Redfern. It performed in Sydney on 14th July." 'Rediscovering Aboriginal arts' in "New Dawn" Sept 72; Robinson p 29 ] on NAIDOC Day. The Pitjantjatjara expression "N'ingla-a-na" 'We are hungry for our land' became the rally call. [Goodall, Heather "Invasion to embassy; land in Aboriginal politics in New South Wales 1970-1972" St' Leonards; Allen & Unwin, 1996 quoted in Robinson p 30]

For the first time Aboriginal people with their families came out on the streets in large numbers to support their younger people. [Lester Bostock [http://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/dawn/docs/v22/s04/15.pdf Black theatre in New South Wales] ]

Six days later, on 20th July [ [http://www.aph.gov.au/library/pubs/chron/1999-2000/2000chr03.htm#aboriginal Aboriginal Tent Embassy Chronology] ] , the news came through that the Aboriginal Tent Embassy in Canberra had been removed.

At the re-erection of the tent embassy, on the 30th July, the Black Theatre performed the Dance "of the Embassy", also called "The challenge" [ Robinson p 28 ] which was a symbolic re-erection of the tent embassy but portrayed the whole history of Aboriginal / European conflict and gave powerful expression to the emotions of that event.

On the 7th September, the dance group performed a public concert at the Friends' hall in Devonshire Street, Surry Hills. It was a presentation of class work, works in progress and students' material. The Embassy dance, called "Awakening", was revised to include traditional Aboriginal movements. [Robinson p 32]

I think everyone present sensed that this was a very significant event for the Aboriginal community, and the considerable number of Redfern ‘Koories’ present bore this out. [McCarthy, Anne "Performance by National Black Theatre - Dance Groupe" Report for AAAC:5.1.12, 6 October, 1972 quoted by Robinson pp 32-34, Appendix pp9-10 ]

"Basically black"

When Bob Maza came to Sydney, he undertook an apprenticeship program for directors and actors with the Nimrod Theatre Company. In the absence of a performance space, the political revue Basically Black was performed at the Nimrod Theatre Company's Stables Theatre, directed by Ken Horler. The cast included Aileen Corpus, Gary Foley, Zac Martin, Bob Maza and Bindi Williams. The revue was a biting satire, continuing the response to the High Court ruling against a traditional claim to land ownership. [Brisbane [http://www.currency.com.au/page74134337.aspx The future is black and white] Currency Press] The reports were that it was very funny. Premiering 27th October, a successful season of five or six weeks ran until December 3.

The final performance coincided with a federal election and the famous ALP / Gough Whitlam victory.

the cast, crew and audience gathered in the theatre foyer to party and watch the results of the Federal election come in on specially installed TV sets ... the McMahon government (and twenty-two years of conservative rule) lost the election to a Labor landslide. [Foley, Gary "Black power in Redfern" in [http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/essays/essay_1.html The Koori History Website] 2001]

Ebony Profile Casting agency

Also at this time certain advertising agencies began offering work to local blacks. This interest led to the formation of Ebony Profile, a part of NBT established as a black casting agency providing people with a grounding in advertising, television and films. The agencies and TV producers rely on “Ebony Profile” to provide them with actors, actresses, etc. [ [http://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/dawn/docs/v21/s07/4.pdf 'Basically black'] in "New Dawn" December 1972]

By the end of 1972 NBT, as it was known, was based at 181 Regent Street, an umbrella organisation for a range of groups.

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1973

Dance classes had ceased for a few months. While Phemie prepared herself to be a teacher, she searched for a replacement for Carole. A few came and went, until Lucy Jumawan, recently arrived from the Philippines ensured a regular schedule.

The Metropolitan Local Aboriginal Land Council was established at the Black Theatre in 1973, illustrating its value as a community hub. [ [ http://www.cityofsydney.nsw.gov.au/barani/themes/theme5.htm Aboriginal organisations in Sydney] in Barani ]

Basically black tour and television production

"Basically Black" was invited to the Innisfail Festival in Queensland. Trusting the assurances of funding, the Black Theatre troupe set off on tour - visits to missions and reserves considered important as there were a range of human rights issues in that state.

It was a white bus, and on the side of it had "Black Theatre" and "Basically black" underneath it. And in those days we had a lot of looks and stares of people wondering what all these blackfellas in this bus here ... [Ted Maza, Bob Maza's nephew, was involved in the music side] [ [http://www.abc.net.au/message/tv/ms/s1171816.htm/ Bob Maza] [and family] on Messagestick 2004]
However the promised funding from the Council for the Arts did not arrive, which put a lot of pressure on the shoe string budget. A new production had been planned for March, a musical, Millingurri. Thirteen out of the fourteen songs were original, some were recorded. [ [http://www1.aiatsis.gov.au/dawn/docs/v21/s07/4.pdf 'Basically black'] in "New Dawn"] However NBT did not continue operating. Lester Bostock carried on as administrator after the tour, followed by Tony Coorey. Funds were frozen for some time. [Robinson p 50] There was a brief lull while people reenergised.

The cast reunited for the ABC television production of "Basically Black", At a 1993 Aboriginal Medical Service meeting Gary Foley is quoted as saying :

"The first black television show by the ABC, which was a version of "Basically Black", had some scripts culled by non Aboriginal scriptwriters from the original production". Foley

The foundations were laid for a broad range of initiatives that followed – the possibility of Aboriginal-initiated theatre had been opened up.. What was needed next, was a performance space. [ Casey ]

First National Seminar on Aboriginal Arts

The first National Seminar on Aboriginal Arts was held in Canberra in May 1973, sponsored by the Aboriginal Arts Board of the newly formed Australia Council for the Arts. (The newly elected ALP had a commitment to the arts – there was a substantial increase in funding and reorganisation of procedures enabling greater accessibility to resources, leading to independence of the Australia Council in 1975. The Aboriginal Arts Board had 15 Aboriginal members)

Paul Coe, Brian Syron, Gary Foley, Oodgeroo Noonuccal, her grandson Denis Walker and other delegates discussed possibilities. [Casey] A number favoured outreach work with mobile productions and workshops touring. Syron suggested a black theatre in each state, as a supplement, not replacement to traditional forms [ McGuinness, Bruce A time to dream [film)] 1974, quoted by Casey] A group presented a program of short sketches on topical issues. [Australia Council for the Arts First annual report 1973 North Sydney: Australian Council for the Arts, 1974 p36 quoted by Casey]

Carole Johnson returned in November to take up a consultancy position with the Urban Theatre Committee (UTC), a sub-committee of the newly established Aboriginal Arts Board (AAB). This meant she worked more with helping to find a building for Black theatre than with dance workshops. [Robinson p 48]

For the first time, a theatre company used Aboriginal people to play Aboriginal people. Sydney Theatre Company produced The story of Bennelong. Boddy's The Cradle of Hercules at the Sydney Opera House Old Tote theatre. [Johnson, quoted by Robinson Appendix p 70-77 scheduled Nov Dec 1973, reviewed 4 March p74]

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1974

The Black Theatre group reformed. Originally there were no financial resources, then funding was obtained from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs and AAB to establish and manage a centre. [Lester Bostock Black theatre pp14-15] As Casey said

One of the major problems facing Aboriginal artists was the battle to be taken seriously as artists rather than as social issues to be supported. To this end the Black Theatre’s achievement of establishing its own performance space was an important step. The resulting exposure of their theatre work to a wider audience was another major step. [ Casey p125 ]

Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre

They opened officially on the 26th July, renaming themselves The Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre. Roberta Flack and Rahsaan Roland Kirk were among the celebrities there. Betty Fisher had accepted the position to run the centre.

She recruited Stella Adler trained Aboriginal theatre director, actor and teacher Brian Syron to work on setting it up. A huge empty and derelict hall was leased from the Methodist Church (Wesley Central Mission) for $15,000 a year with very few conveniences. [ Kicking Down the Doors : A History of Indigenous Filmmaking 1968 - 1993 : 29] Casey refers to a former printing works in Botany St, but it is likely the 27-31 Cope Street address, the two streets merge.

With the help of friends such as Tom Hogan and Kevin Cook from the Builders' Labourers Federation, she renovated the old warehouse and developed a theatre and studio area. Born in Berry on the New South Wales south coast, Fisher was a well-known, respected and multi talented personality - a leading cabaret entertainer for 16 years singing with Graham Bell's Jazz Group. Ms Fisher had also toured for 3 years with the leading Aboriginal band Black Lace and was on many Aboriginal service committees, including the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs. Her musical achievements in her short lifetime are quite remarkable when you consider that both Black Lace and Graham Bell's Jazz Group are extremely highly regarded in the music world. [http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A140182b.htm/ Bettie Fisher] Australian Dictionary of Biography

By November 1974, it was up and running. [A phoenix in Redfern. SMH 11 Jan 1975 ] A theatre provided seating for 100 in a semi-circle built up on scaffolding, with cushions spread across. [Black Theatre’s debut SMH 13 Jan 1975] The focus was again on training and workshops. Casey tells the story of a Koori parent leaving his child, overheard outside the centre

You go in there and get what I can’t give you. Those theatre people can give it to you.

Functions included: skill development• outlet for artists and the community• theatre centre• exhibition space • exhibited the work of Aboriginal fashion designers sykes and smith mumshirl 132• drop in and meeting place for local and international visitors• focal point for the community• youth centre• starting point for stolen generations with the task of beginning the search for their family, at that time known as lost generation. [ Whaley a city’s place for dreaming] • bridge between non Aboriginal producers and directors and Aboriginal actors. For example Peter Weir and some television producers did casting interviews there.

The first play staged at the theatre, "The chocolate frog", was written by non-Aboriginal Jim McNeil. While on the executive committee of the Foundation for Aboriginal Affairs, Bettie Fisher had initiated its use as the subject of workshops conducted for inmates of Sydney prisons. (Year unknown) [ [http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A140182b.htm ADB] ]

Syron and Johnson worked on a workshop program to upgrade black theatre across Australia. Carole returned to the United States in May, but returned in 1975 committed to ‘get dance on solid ground’.

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1975

After sixteen months of lobbying the centre was given minimal government funding ($9200) from the Department of Aboriginal Affairs. [ADB]

Dance showcase

A joint dance program with the Sydney dance group, and Queensland’s Yelangi Dance Company and Torres Strait Island Dancers was presented in February, and a short performance on the 6th April, to introduce funding bodies to the work being done by the Black Theatre [Robinson p 60]

The cake man

The first serious play to be workshopped at the centre by director Brian Syron in collaboration with Bob Maza was "The cake man", written in 1974 by Robert Merritt from Erambie Aborigines' Reserve`, Cowra. Merritt wrote "The cake man " while he was in gaol and the play was then smuggled out of the gaol by the Prison Education Officer to the Australian National Playwrights Conference (ANPC). Katherine Brisbane and her husband the late Phillip Parsons Brisbane, the founders of Currency Press, passed the text on to Bob Maza in an amazing act of humanitarian aid to the Black arts of Australia. [ Syron / kearney, " Kicking Down the Doors : A History of Indigenous Filmmaking 1968 - 1993 " 31-32 . 36 ] [Casey] In it he expressed what he believed was at the root of Aboriginal despair.

"It is a poignant fragment of latter day mythology and a powerful Australian play which traces white man's devastation of Blacks over the 200 years to 1974" [Brian Syron] [ Syron / kearney Kicking Down the Doors: 31-32]
"about a Bible-loving mother and an alcoholic father, and how a small boy's innocent faith transforms the life of a white Scrooge. But the identification with the characters which the cast immediately made gave the performed work a compelling emotional drive." [Brisbane.]

It was mainly cast in the Redfern community and starred Justine Saunders, Brian Syron, Zac Martin, Teddy Phillips, and an 8 year old Lisa Maza plus non Aboriginal actors Max Cullen and Danny Adcock. This was a contentious decision weighing up the need for black emergence vs collaboration and skill development. [Casey p 102]

Gerry Bostock tells how, during the performance of one scene in which a group is set upon by two white thugs, visitors from Elcho Island became incensed and tried to climb on to the stage to offer their assistance, yelling ‘I’ll help ya, brother!’ and ‘I’ll come and save ya, cousin!’ [Adam Shoemaker [http://epress.anu.edu.au/bwwp/mobile_devices/ch09.html Aboriginality and Black Australian Drama] in 'Black words, white pages; Aboriginal Literature 1929–1988’]

After initial refusal, Merritt was finally permitted to attend opening night under guard. The cast refused to go on stage until the handcuffs were removed. Lisa Maza presented him with a cake at the end. The play was a huge success with large Koori audiences attending. Casey stresses what an important milestone it was – the first completely Aboriginal written, initiated, controlled, full length, professional, recognised production.

Six week Training Program

The first national performing arts training for Aboriginal people had a profound effect, on the participants, and as a catalyst for performing arts in Sydney. Syron and Johnson, as members of the UTC, devised a continuing training scheme - to nurture new interests and new ideas, increase visibility and participation, and demonstrate the need for a permanent course or school. It was funded by the Commonwealth Department of Education and the Aboriginal Arts Board, and supported by the Black Theatre.

28 students were selected nationally through mini workshops held in the capital cities; Brisbane and Melbourne (Adelaide postponed). This ‘travelling theatre’ would also build networks. Syron taught drama, Johnson and Nicol taught dance, Ande Reese (aka Ande Evan Maddox) taught writing, Tom Rosser taught Karate. [Robinson pp 60-74] The intensive six week course took place at the Black Theatre in Redfern in June and July. Students included Maureen Watson, Jack Davis, Lillian Crombie, Andrew Jackamos, Hylus Maris, Wayne Nicol, Christine Donnelly, Aileen Corpus, Zac Martin, John Bayles, Lorraine Mafi.

On the last night the group staged plays and dances they had written or choreographed. Over 300 people came from all over the country with no advertising. [Haugh, "How Bettie Fisher forced black theatre on the map" quoted by Casey]

Syron met with Carole Johnson and Ande Reese to discuss the production of a film record of The Six Weeks Workshop because he believed that history was being made by all those involved and they needed to record the historic events in order to realise their value. Ande, like Carole, was an African American residing in Sydney, with experience in film and television production in the United States. She had been a screenwriting fellow at the American Film Institute, so she began work on a film (which would be completed in 1976). [ "Kicking Down the Doors - A History of Indigenous Filmmaking 1968 - 1993" Syron / kearney : 30 ]

Outcomes

After the six week training program, people could for the first time see possibility of employment.

Members of the dance group requested more specialised training, and a "Careers in Dance" course commenced in October. It moved to Bodenweiser Dance Studio in Chippendale, the breakaway causing some grief in the Redfern community. This was the forerunner of The Aboriginal / Islander Dance Theatre (AIDT) and The Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Scheme (AISDS), which evolved into the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA) in 1988, [ [http://www.abc.net.au/message/archive/dreamtime02/history.htm NAISDA History of the college; Dreamtime to dance] ] and the offshoot Bangarra Dance Theatre in 1989.

Christine Donnelly applied for a grant to continue dance workshops at the Centre, but was initially refused. [Robinson p 77-78]

In August, Johnson and Syron were terminated as consultants to the Aboriginal Arts Board (Urban dance and Urban Theatre), the only consultants for the UTC with experience in the performing arts. (Chicka Dixon was a member who became increasingly active.)

While the dance group focused on further education, the drama group saw most of its students gain work. Many excelled in other areas of the performing arts as well. Yvette Isaacs was awarded a Conservatorium of Music scholarship. Known now as Maroochy Baramba, a successful musician, she has performed in leading roles and established a recording and publishing company Daki Budtcha. [ [ http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE1171b.htm Maroochy Baramba in Australian Women] ] . Jack Davis developed as a playwright, Cheryl Stone became a booking agent, Maureen Watson became a well-known storyteller and started Radio Redfern. Christine Donnelly founded the Aboriginal Dance Theatre Redfern (ADTR) in 1979 to serve the Redfern community. Lucy Jumawan has worked there for many years as senior dance teacher.

Performances

Jack Davis presented for a performance his second one-act play, The biter bit [ Casey p133 ]

Bettie Fisher continued to invite touring international Black artists to perform at the Black Theatre. Despite resistance by a number of non-Aboriginal entertainment managers, visitors included the band, Osibisa, and the Ghanaian drummers.

Change of government

In November 1975, there was a constitutional crisis and the Liberal Party under Malcolm Fraser gained power. Funding and support for Aboriginal arts, and rights, was about to change.

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1976

A subscription season was planned of ‘black plays by black artists’ including works by Gerry Bostock, Wole Soyinka, Ione elder and Archie Shepp. [ Aboriginal Black Theatre, subscription season brochure, 1976]

However tragically Bettie Fisher died of coronary arteriosclerosis on 12 May 1976, still in her thirties. Brian Syron wrote that

"Ms Fisher was Director of the Black Theatre Arts and Cultural Centre on a full-time basis during the theatre's short life. I regarded her contribution and legacy to Black Arts as monumental and her death a symptom of Australian societal attitudes towards Indigenous people. Aboriginal people die young."

Funding withdrawn

A proposed grant from the Federal government of $86,000 [Bettie Fisher ADB] ] for the 76-77 financial year was withdrawn in June 1976. (Dance and drama were funded separately.) The Board (under the new Liberal government) didn’t support the organisation, and was critical of Lester Bostock’s appointment as Fisher’s replacement. [Casey p 66] Ironically the Board was planning to spend $197,000 to send 30 Aboriginal performers to Nigeria to take part in the 2nd World Black and African Festival of Arts and Culture.

Marcia Langton believed that the difficulties faced by the black theatre in this period occurred because their work challenged the ‘accepted’ expectations of Aboriginal people. [Casey p 68-69] Justine Saunders agreed - 'challenging stereotypes, presenting real human beings dealing with conflict.' [Casey p109]

Here comes the nigger

To deal with the financial crisis a fundraising committee was established. The company used their limited resources to produce the play Here Comes the Nigger written by Gerry Bostock. This was the final production at the Redfern Black Theatre and Cultural Centre in 1976. It was directed by Jack Charles, then Bob Maza who withdrew for other commitments. It then became a cooperative affair with Gerry Bostock and Bryan Brown directing with the cast . The cast included Athol Compton, Kevin Stuart (Smith), Julie McGregor, Marcia Langton, Bryan Brown, Robert Hensley, John Bayles, Ron Murray, Lorraine Mafi Williams and Venieca Doolan. [ Casey p 269] Marcia Langton, for example, was running the box office as a volunteer for NAISDA student performances at the centre, in between working for The Aboriginal Medical Service around the corner.

This was the first occasion a profile was achieved outside the urban Aboriginal communities The play was successful – they were starting to draw in a wider audience, often first time visitors to Redfern, which helped to start to break down the barriers.

Film: Tjintu Pakani - Sunrise awakening

Syron noted in "Kicking Down the Doors" that was completed, including footage of the first professional performance by Black Theatre's dance group under the direction of Carole Johnson in 1976. The film won first prize in the Greater Union Awards, documentary category, at the Sydney Film Festival in May that year. It also screened in Paris at L'Homme Regarde L'Homme, the Museum of Modern Art in New York, and had a private screening at Universal Studios in Hollywood. A half hour version was televised by the ABC.

One of the items was the Embassy dance, performed this time with traditional movements. [Bostock, Lester 'The Black Theatre' in "GUWANYI; Stories of the Redfern Aboriginal community" An exhibition at the Museum of Sydney 21 December 1996 – 4 May 1997 reproduced in [http://www.redfernoralhistory.org/Organisations/BlackTheatre/tabid/204/Default.aspx/ Redfern Oral History] ]

In an interview with Reese for a paper titled "The Australian Film Commission" written in September, 1977, Reese said that when she made "Sunrise Awakening"

Aborigines wanted to know why they couldn't make their own films about themselves and how and what they were doing. They asked why films about Aborigines were invariably made by the white middle class [ briann kearney, "The Australian Film Commission", 1977 : 13 ]
As Syron commented in his book "Kicking down the doors", 'We would ask that question for many years to come.'

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1977

ABC TV did a television production of the play "The Cake Man" in 1977, making it the first telemovie to be written by an Aboriginal playwright. After its success, Merritt then tried to put on another stage production of the play.

'At that time it was to be all black. The Board offered us $12,000. I was disillusioned; I knew I wouldn't get what I wanted on that amount. Soon after that I meet George Ogilvie. He not only liked the play but saw it as a fresh challenge. We submitted a more realistic budget to the Aboriginal Arts Board. It was successful and the production opened at the Bondi Pavilion, Bondi Beach in Sydney on 30 April, 1977' [ Merritt, Robert, The Cake Man Currency Press, 1989]

Under Ogilvie's direction and starring Justine Saunders with Zac Martin and Brian Syron it was the first Aboriginal play to enter the repertoire of the European Australian mainstream theatre.

Syron's and Saunder's performances were both highly acclaimed. [Casey p 118]

Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser announced that cultural activities involving Aboriginal people would no longer be helped by the Department of Aboriginal Affairs, but would become the responsibility of the Australia Council. No funds were granted to the Council for its additional responsibilities.

Lester Bostock recalled that the Theatre had applied to the Department and to the Australia Council for assistance but had received no reply. [ [Guwanyi] ] Lack of funding had become an enormous strain on the Theatre, and all involved. As Langton explained

With no grants for over a year, the burden of supporting the centre plus making a living burnt people out . [Langton, quoted by Casey]

By the end of 1977 the Black Theatre had closed.

Seeds sown for future growth

In 1979 Christine Donnelly, a participant in the six week program, founded the Aboriginal Dance Theatre (ADTR) to serve the Redfern community. It is situated next to the Black Theatre site.

In 1980 Bostock and Bryan Brown received Script Development funding from the Creative Development Branch of the Australian Film Commission for a documentary to be made from Bostock's script "Here Comes the Nigger".

"Barbara Aylsen" : You already have one project floating with Gerry Bostock.
"Bryan Brown" : The project with Gerry is the first concrete movement I have made into another area. We worked together on a screenplay from Gerry's play "Here Comes the Nigger" which I want to shoot. I haven't yet had the opportunity to shoot it and I am still working out how I want to do it.

In 1982 "The Cake Man" starring Justine Saunders, Graham Moore and Syron, and directed by Syron, was invited to the International World Theatre Festival in Denver, Colorado and played to packed houses receiving widespread acclaim [Brisbane] (despite bureaucratic and private company disinterest). [ [http://www.austlii.edu.au/au/journals/AboriginalLB/1985/82.html This'll get 'em for sure - An interview with Bob Merritt] in Aboriginal Law Bulletin 1985]

Merritt went on to become the first Aboriginal screenwriter to co-write a feature film "Running Man" (1982) and the first Indigenous screenwriter of feature film "Short Changed" (1986) [ Kicking Down the Doors - A History of Indigenous Filmmaking 1968 - 1993 : 125/157/165/505 ]

In 1984 Bob Merritt set up the Eora Centre for the visual and performing arts in Redfern, offering young Aboriginal people a comprehensive education. He filmed it in "Eora Corroboree"

In 1987 the First National Black Playwrights’ Conference was held under the artistic directorship of Brian Syron, thanks to a push from people like Chicka Dixon, Gary Foley and Rhoda Roberts.

Out of this came the Aboriginal National Theatre Trust (ANTT), established in Sydney in 1988.

In 1988 Carole Johnson was a foundation member and first director of the National Aboriginal and Islander Skills Development Association (NAISDA). She played a major role in the training of Aboriginal and Islander dancers and actors in movement, dance and choreography.

I love it in the '90s how all these organisations get longer and longer names. [Rhoda Roberts] [Roberts, Rhoda [http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/images/history/1970s/blacktheatre/story4.html/ A Passion for Ideas: Black Stage] Third Rex Cramphorn Memorial Lecture, Belvoir Street Theatre, Sydney, 23 November 1997 ]

NAISDA is based on an idea of Johnson's, where young people would be taught traditional dance from their Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander elders while also studying a modern dance technique.

Johnson also played a pivotal role in the establishment in 1989 of the Bangarra Dance Theatre. She was founder and foundation member of the theatre which began in the Police Boys Club, Pitt Street, Redfern. The Bangarra Dance Theatre performed their first professional performance in 1990 in Brian Syron's feature film Jindalee Lady (1992), the first feature film to be directed by an Indigenous Australian. [ Syron / kearney, KDTD : 30 /306 ]

Conclusion - Impact

The ABC radio program Hindsight summarised:

BlackTheatre had a profound impact on the Australian arts scene of today. It was also the place where many well known Aboriginal performers got their break. And its legacy is still apparent in today’s arts scene.
It was also true that
The centre also functioned as an informal meeting-place for Redfern Blacks who previously had few places in which to gather, save for the local pubs where they encountered prejudice from the Whites and aggression from the police. [Cole and Lewis [http://www.adb.online.anu.edu.au/biogs/A140182b.htm Bettie Fisher] ]

Bettie Fisher

The centre for me is my blood, my guts, my heart and my soul, for my people and their culture. I’m a very emotional person as far as this centre is concerned. Because there is a helluva need for it. [SMH, 1975 quoted by Robinson]

Gerry Bostock

It was a major step in breaking down barriers, as for many people attending Black Theatre, it was their first visit to Redfern.

Lester Bostock

Its whole emphasis was to put the points across to its own community. That was the first step. By the people, for the people. All those other things that happened are secondary.

Black Theatre is no longer in Redfern, but in a spiritual sense, as a philosophy of an ideal, it’s still alive. The dreams and aspirations of those people are still carried on. When you see people like the Page boys, and you see programs like ICAM, and all these other things, those ideals are still there.The people are still called by the community the Black Theatre people. Even though it’s an empty lot now, it’s still called the Black Theatre site.

It developed a state of mind and it was also a focus of energy, because it became part of Redfern, where the Kooris and Murries knew their grass roots and knew their artistic endeavours. Many individuals have gone onto radio, television, dance or drama and now contemporary Aboriginal culture is recognised throughout the world.

Kevin Smith

It inspired a confidence in the community, that things could be done, and a message could be given. Black Theatre itself was a message stick.

It was also a refuge, a smart option, a vehicle and a place [to go] without being harassed by police and police dogs, being set upon and attacked and then having a criminal record. [Hindsight]

Marcia Langton

It was very much a community centre. During rehearsals lots of people would come to watch how things were done in the theatre. It was one of those periods when a group of people with amazing backgrounds came together, Maza, Foley, Merritt and Syron, and it worked. It was a hothouse.

Justine Saunders

It gave the possibility of life... It was wonderful. .. the best thing I ever did, it fine-tuned me. It gave the chance to touch base with my culture. It was a blessing to a people. [Hindsight]

Moving on - the future of the site

The Black Theatre building was handed over to the Redfern Aboriginal community, to a group called the Organisation for Aboriginal Unity (OAU), after its closure as a theatre. The OAU consisted of members of all of the existing organisations and individuals at the time of forming (1975). The OAU and the late Charles Perkins wanted the site to be developed as a cultural centre for the Redfern community, but there were never any funds to redevelop the site. It then became a squat. As there are organisations that exist now that that didn’t exist then, Wyanga (next door) being one and the Local Land Council another, the Aboriginal community established another organisation called the Redfern Aboriginal Authority, reforming late in 2004 following suggestions that the NSW Government planned to forcibly acquire land owned by Aboriginal people in Redfern's Block. [http://www.nit.com.au/News/story.aspx?id=5745 National Indigenous Times] When ATSIC was abolished in 2005, the Indigenous Land Corporation (ILC) took over the overseeing of the site, developing it as a strategic project in 2007-2008, and liaising with Sol Bellear, Redfern Aboriginal Authority's CEO.

The ILC seeks expressions of interest from Aboriginal businesses and organisations in the arts, multimedia, retail and/or hospitality. Redevelopment is due for completion by mid 2008.

References

Bibliography

Further reading

* Casey, Maryrose "Creating Frames: Contemporary Indigenous Theatre, 1967-97". University of Queensland Press, 2004

* "The encyclopaedia of Aboriginal Australia". ed Dr David Horton 1994

* Foley, Gary [http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/images/history/1970s/blacktheatre/nbtdx.html/ The development of black theatre in the 1970s] in "The Koori History website"

* Milne, Geoffrey "Theatre Australia (Un)limited: Australian Theatre Since the 1950s"

* The Mudrooroo / Mueller Project - A Theatrical Casebook: edited by Gerhard Fisher 1993

* Robinson, Raymond Stanley [http://handle.uws.edu.au:8081/1959.7/76 Dreaming tracks : history of the Aboriginal Islander Skills Development Scheme, 1972-1979 : its place in the continuum of Australian indigenous dance and the contribution of its African American founder Carole Y. Johnson.] [Masters thesis] University of Western Sydney, 2000

* Syron, Brian / kearney, briann Kicking Down the Doors - A History of Indigenous Australian Filmmakers from 1968 - 1993, (Australian Council 1993 Literary Fellowship), Second Edition, Lulu Inc., USA, ISBN 978-1-84799-364-9

Film, television and radio

* 1972: Cavadini, Alessandro and Carolyn Strachan. "N'ingla a-na; Hungry for land" 72 min.

* 1973: "Basically black" ABC television 26/2/73

* 1973: Damjanovic, Milena "Sharing the dream"

* 1976: Reese, Ande "Sunrise awakening"

* 1997: Hindsight [26/10/97] "Black Theatre Company " ABC Radio

* 1999: Messagestick [31/10/99] "Bob Maza talks about Basically Black" ABC http://www.abc.net.au/message/tv/ms/bobmaza_311099.htm

* 2002: Messagestick [11/8/02] "Black Theatre" ABC http://www.abc.net.au/message/tv/ms/s640055.htm

* 2004: Messagestick [13/8/04] "Bob Maza tribute" ABC http://www.abc.net.au/message/tv/ms/s1171816.htm

* 2006: Messagestick [24/11/06] "50 years indigenous TV" ABC http://www.abc.net.au/message/tv/ms/s1792454.htm

External links

* [http://www.ilc.gov.au/site/page.cfm?u=102/ Leasing Opportunity - Black Theatre Site, 27-31 Cope Street through to 90 Renwick Street]
* Redfern Oral History http://redfernoralhistory.org
* [http://www.kooriweb.org/foley/images/history/1970s/blacktheatre/abctvdx.html Stills from 1973 ABC-TV production of "Basically Black" on KooriWeb]


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