It’s a production described as both great theatre and great history and, on Wednesday, this critically-acclaimed piece returns to Sydney for two performances.
Coranderrk is a co-production by ILBIJERRI, Australia’s leading and longest-running Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Theatre Company, and Belvoir. Written by Andrea James and Giordano Nanni and originally staged by director Rachael Maza in 2010, it’s the story of a forgotten fight for land against the Aboriginal Protection Board in Victoria in 1881.
In 2013, Coranderrk played Belvoir St Theatre to critical acclaim and then, in 2014, enjoyed a sell-out season in Melbourne. In 2017, a re-written and remounted version of Coranderrk is hitting stages across the country as part of a national tour. It features an all-Indigenous cast, including Trevor Jamieson, Mathew Cooper, Ebony McGuide and Jesse Butler.
Mathew Cooper has been associated with Coranderrk for some time, having first played the role in the show’s 2013 Belvoir season. The 2017 national tour represents his third time performing in Coranderrk for ILBIJERRI.
“The story is about self-determination,” Cooper tells Theatre People.
In 1863, Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve was established approximately 60 kilometres north-east of Melbourne. It was one of six reserves the government established for the settlement of Aboriginal persons.
“It was pretty successful for about 20 years,” Cooper says. “It was self-sufficient and running so well that they [the Aboriginal inhabitants] started making money, and instead of living in huts, they were planning on building themselves houses.
“Then … the Aboriginal Protection Board, which was the governing body of Aboriginal people back then, decided it wasn’t in the best interests of Aboriginal people to be having that kind of success. So, they tried to force them to leave the station.”
Responding to the now routine threat of being evicted from land that was rightfully theirs, the Coranderrk community – aided by allies in the white settler community – petitioned against the removal, which ultimately led to the appointment of a Parliamentary Inquiry to examine the Aboriginal Protection Board’s management of Coranderrk.
“The inquiry lasted for two-and-a-half months,” Cooper says. “In the end, they won the petition and they got the land.”
Coranderrk is inspired by transcripts of that 1881 inquiry. It involves the re-enactment of integral passages from the testimonies, letters and petitions of several witnesses who gave evidence, painting a vivid picture of the battle that was fought.
“Aboriginal people have been fighting for self-determination for a very long time and people, even way back 140 years ago, were trying to use the same kind of bureaucratic process and the judiciary to try to get what we want [in] the same kind of way that we’re doing now,” Cooper says. “I don’t know if there’s been that much progress.”
Cooper says he’s been surprised by how keenly interested audience participants have been to learn more about the story of the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve following each performance.
“The audiences have been really receptive”, Cooper says. “Especially in Victoria, I guess, because it’s their story.”
Q&A sessions run throughout the seasons have been well-attended. After each of Wednesday’s performances at Riverside, Uncle Jack Charles, who originated the role of Aboriginal leader William Barak in the 2013 production at Belvoir St Theatre, will host a Q&A session.
Cooper hopes all who attend will enjoy their experience learning about this forgotten story from Indigenous Australian history.
“You get to hear Aboriginal voices from 140 years ago. You don’t really get to hear that very often,” Cooper says.
“You also get to hear non-Aboriginal voices that were championing Aboriginal rights 140 years ago. You don’t get to hear that very often either.”
CORANDERRK – RIVERSIDE THEATRES SEASON DETAILS
Location: Riverside Theatres – Corner Church and Market Streets, Parramatta
When: 11am (plus Q&A) and 7.30pm on Wednesday 28th June 2017
Tickets: Adult $52
30 & Under $38
Transaction fees: phone $4.60, web $3.60 and counter $2.60
Discounts available for Riverside Theatres’ Members.
Bookings: www.riversideparramatta.com.au or from the Box Office (02) 8839 3399
For full 2017 national tour dates, click here
Warning: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander audiences are advised that this production contains images of deceased persons