It’s one of the most shameful chapters in the history of white Australia.
From the early 1900s through to the late 1960s, the government-mandated removal of mixed race children of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander descent (or ‘half-castes’) from their homes saw many families torn apart.
While debate continues as to the motivations of those who drove the policies underpinning the removal of children, the profound impact of those at the centre of these appalling events is unquestionable. Many children became victims of physical, sexual and psychological abuse in their new homes, received poor educations and were forced into labouring, and ultimately rejected their Aboriginal heritage – including their biological families – entirely. And, of course, the lives of family members left behind were similarly changed forever.
In 1993, the Ilbijerri Theatre Company commissioned Jane Harrison, a descendant of the Muruwari people of New South Wales, and a researcher to create a work that captured the experiences of members of the Stolen Generations. According to Harrison, it took six years to write and workshop and, finally, bring that work, Stolen, to the stage. The play has since been performed in many local and international cities.
In 2016, the National Theatre of Parramatta has chosen to bring Stolen back to the stage in Sydney as its second work. Under the direction of Vicki Van Hout (who’s also co-designer on this occasion), Stolen examines the effects of removal on five indigenous Australians.
Firstly, Sandy (Kerri Simpson) has spent his whole life on the run, having never known life in a proper home. His story is of that search to find a home, where he’s not abused and has no need to continue hiding.
Next, there’s Ruby (Berthalia Selina Reuben), who was forced into domestic work at a young age and has suffered sexual abuse at the hands of her supposed white protectors. She is reunited with her birth family.
Jimmy (Mathew Cooper) has spent most of his life separated from his mother, who spent her own life searching for him ever since that separation occurred. It’s a reunion that never comes to pass and Jimmy ultimately takes his own life.
Ann (Matilda Brown) was removed from her family as a young child, and the life that followed was a settled one, and her subsequently learning of her birth family wanting to meet her brings mixed feelings.
And finally, there’s Shirley (Henrietta Baird), who not only was removed herself, but then faced the horror of having her own children removed from her care. Her granddaughter’s birth brings with it a great sense of joy, with Shirley secure in the knowledge that no one will take that child from her.
The individual stories woven into the piece are powerful, and so obviously indicative of the experiences of many of the 100,000 stolen children and their families. Harrison’s words are thoughtfully chosen, each character’s plight described with sensitivity, and it’s largely very matter-of-fact in its tone. There are fleeting moments of humour, which appropriately incorporate moments of lightness into an otherwise heavy piece. What’s especially satisfying about Harrison’s text is that there’s no tendency to craft the storytelling in a manner that tries to maximise dramatic impact. Each character’s experience speaks for itself, and Harrison’s restrained text allows it do so.
That simplicity is matched in the performances of the ensemble cast, which ooze authenticity and nothing is ever in danger of feeling overwrought. Having said that, there are perhaps moments in the piece when more emphasis could be placed on certain passages of text – more use of pause or even simply more volume – in order to let those words wash over the audience to full effect. Sound is problematic at certain moments throughout the performance, which would easily be addressed by amplification of dialogue (something that did occur, though very sparingly, throughout the piece).
The stories are told in a nonlinear narrative, and there are moments when segues from one story to the next aren’t entirely well signposted, but the strength of the performances and good directorial choices from Van Hout prevent this from being a recurring issue.
Van Hout has worked with co-designer Imogen Ross to create a production design well paired to the text. Especially impressive is the use of cardboard for much of the set, which suggests the transiency, fragmentation and fragility of the worlds of each character, and everything within those worlds. The main set piece that remains a constant on stage throughout the entire 90-minute work is a large rainbow yarn bombed tree, which has been designed to reflect a culture surviving and thriving in urban modernity. Its persistent presence on stage, contrasted with the cardboard props surrounding it that continue to change in both placement and purpose, wonderfully achieving that impact, speaking to a culture and a community prevailing even faced with the utmost challenging of times.
Rounding out the visual elements of the show, Toby K’s lighting design is simple, dark and moody. There’s an occasional use of audio-visual elements, and while their function at all in further driving forward the narrative is questionable, the restraint shown in opting to integrate these aspects into the stage design was commendable.
Stolen is a collection of stories that should continue to be told on Australian stages. Harrison’s wonderful words evoke a strong visceral reaction, reminding us how overwhelming and far-reaching the impact remains of a policy discontinued more than four decades ago. It’s a reminder of the ignorance that compromised an ongoing indigenous culture and population in Australia, and ruined generations of families. But Stolen is also a reminder of the survival of the Aboriginal community, and of the wider community’s determination not to see the sins of the past repeated. And it’s a reminder of the progress made in the mending of the relationship of Aboriginal and white Australia, but also of the work that still remains to be done.
Stolen is playing at Parramatta’s Riverside Theatres until June 17. To purchase tickets, click here.