Stepping into the La Mama Courthouse to witness the verbatim piece Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country, an apt venue to stage such a work, my developing interest in – and understanding of – the Coranderrk Aboriginal Station, my non-Aboriginal heritage, and my keen desire to see the incomparable Jack Charles on stage, imbued in me a sense of quiet inquisitiveness.
Established in 1863 by displaced Kulin nation community members, Coranderrk, located outside of Melbourne near the town of Healesville, was intended to be a place of peace where Wurundjeri people could use the land for agricultural purposes and live free of the oppressive colonial regimes exercised by European settlers. Attracting members of Aboriginal communities from across Victoria, Coranderrk flourished to such an extent that European settlers saw fit to take the land for themselves, using the Board for the Protection of Aborigines to try and remove Aboriginal workers and families from Coranderrk. After the appointment of missionary Rev. Strickland as station manager, the people of Coranderrk were deprived of wages, food, clothing, and essential items such as pillows, mattresses and blankets, and the living conditions at Coranderrk deteriorated. In addition, people were beaten, with some dying, inciting overdue rebellion with the allegiance of white community members such as the visionary Ann Fraser Bon: a fierce campaigner for the people of Coranderrk in a time when Aboriginal people didn’t have the right to vote, and John Green, the initial station manager who respected, and had affection towards, the Aboriginal community (played beautifully by David Paterson). The fact the 1881 Inquiry and the testimonies given by Aboriginal people – particularly women – were undertaken in such a political and social climate demonstrate the significant nature of the Inquiry and the courage it took to share their stories of abuse.
As Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country is a piece of verbatim theatre, it is staggering and deeply upsetting to think that the more controversial opinions expressed and tales of cruelty and neglect did in fact occur, and were documented in the Inquiry minutes which were passed around to audience members post-show. While the piece was understated from a technical perspective, and included moments where actors would read lines from the page rather than being off-book, these features did not hinder my appreciation for a work in which the content and palpable emotions confronted a contemporary audience with horrors of the past. As Jack Charles commented in a post-show forum, people in Australia need to get used to the words “invasion” and “genocide” in order to fully acknowledge what white settlement meant for Aboriginal people, and Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country offers an insight into history that illuminates these claims. A pertinent moment which emphasised this came when the insufferable Rev. Strickland (embodied completely by Richard Bligh) consults a notebook containing the number of Aboriginal people at Coranderrk, unable to remember how many people were under his “supervision”, but was able to rattle off the number of cattle on the station over a several year period sans consultation: a telling sequence of events.
Interesting to note was how much space, physically and vocally, the white actors took up on stage while portraying representatives of colonial authority, from spreading their legs when seated, to offering occasionally glib characterisations of suffocatingly pompous men. Whether these exaggerated performance styles were deliberately adopted as a means for the actors, as contemporary Australians, to distance themselves from past atrocities, or to highlight the disdainful nature of such historical figures I am unsure. In any case, the heartfelt and devastating portrayals by Aboriginal actors –several of whom had ancestors at Coranderrk– offered a moving contrast. I was particularly captivated by Pauline Whyman’s delicate embodiments of young men and grieving mothers for whom fear dictated their lives, and Jack Charles as William Barak, a leader whose presence I was constantly aware of, and consistently drawn back to. Liz Jones’ inspired portrayal of the outspoken and supportive Ann Fraser Bon was also a highlight for me, and a welcome, albeit surprising, white voice.
Overall, Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country was well-delivered and more than anything, necessary. It wasn’t easy to watch, and it shouldn’t be. And while trying to adequately summarise and critique an experience that will stay with me for a very long time, I can say that Coranderrk: We Will Show the Country is essential viewing for anyone who wishes, or needs, to more fully understand Australia’s history.