Wesley Enoch continues to break new ground with his production of a Bertolt Brecht play with an entirely Indigenous cast, writes Karol Foyle
Ursula Yovich and Wesley Enoch rehearse QTC's Mother Courage and Her Children
At first glance Bertolt Brecht’s 1939 play, Mother Courage and Her Children, written in response to the rise of Fascism and the German invasion of Poland, is as far removed from Australian indigeneity as you can get. But Queensland Theatre Company (QTC) director Wesley Enoch and actor Paula Nazarski believe it’s the perfect play to explore with an entirely Indigenous cast.
Using a mix of English and Indigenous slang, Enoch’s and Nazarski’s translation is set in a post-apocalyptic Australia, rather than Brechts original setting of Central Europe’s 30 Years’ War with a conflict between Aboriginal identity and mining. The idea first came to Nazarski when she was working in country Queensland.
Nazarski and actor Damian Cassidy were working in the Cherbourg area of Murgon in country Queensland and the students there were studying Brecht, says Enoch.
“She saw a connection in that Mother Courage is an Aboriginal story and when she came back we talked about it and thought it was really interesting, so I said to write it up and see (if it works). It really came from a lot of QTC’s educational and regional development work and we agreed that it would be fantastic to do and really got behind it.”
Enoch was especially keen to use a non-Australian themed play combined with an all-Indigenous cast, as a way to escape stereotypical narratives and expectations when exploring Indigenous themes.
“Right from the beginning I was thinking of an all Indigenous cast because often when you have white folk in a show like this they inevitably play the baddies, the person doing bad against (Aborigines). So in an all-Aboriginal cast you can actually have diverse opinions amongst Aboriginal people, which you very rarely get.
This article was originally published in the Winter 2013 issue of The Equity Magazine
“You can have different Aboriginal actors playing characters with a plethora of ideas and perspectives rather than have all these people share the same idea, which is where I think a lot of projects with Indigenous actors or themes fall down. There is a whole romanticising or uniformity of approach, as though all Aboriginal people agree somehow.”
During the cast’s first reading of the play, Enoch’s initial thoughts were confirmed.
“We went around the room and we talked about our cultural backgrounds. We saw that we are all such a mix of everything, from South Sea Islanders to a Welsh connection. There is a whole range of experiences and when you get an all-Indigenous cast you can feel confident to be everything, whereas when you are burdened with the idea of sole representation you have to be only one thing. It really is quite interesting to do, and strangely an all-Indigenous cast enables you to transcend politics. You can actually be human because you are not trying to represent one perspective, one story or one narrative.”
Cast in the lead role of Mother Courage, Ursula Yovich admits she needed a little convincing from Enoch to commit, because she had decided against being cast in Indigenous roles, feeling that the industry was confining her solely to Indigenous roles.
“Wesley called up and said he was interested in putting it on and it was around the time I decided I didn’t really want to do any more Aboriginal plays, but he said ‘Look, I know that’s not what you want to do but I am thinking of doing Mother Courage and using an all Aboriginal cast. How do you feel about that?’ I kind of ummed and ahhed, as I was adamant that I wasn’t going to do anything (Indigenous) but I decided I had to give the character a go because the role would be challenging for me. I am not really thinking about (the play) as a black and white thing, as we are being quite true to the story. We just happen to be a lot of black people on stage.”
Yovich’s initial reluctance was triggered by her frustration about only being considered for out-and-out Aboriginal roles. Her thoughts on this issue have since relaxed a little, having realised her frustration and anger has not just been about being limited to Indigenous characters but more about being identified by the industry as Indigenous rather than as an actor.
“I really feel the industry needs to move on. We need to be offered a wider range of roles to play. The characters need to be not black and white, and not two-dimensional. They need to be complex and that is what was really bothering me.
“At the time when I first said it, I wasn’t really sure what I was saying, but I knew I really did not want to do this anymore, because I had been (limited to Indigenous roles) for such a long time. It felt like I did not want to portray Aboriginal roles anymore but I realize now that it’s the kind of roles.”
When Yovich voiced her concerns most of her contemporaries understood her stance, but she didn’t foresee the reaction it would trigger in younger Indigenous actors who looked up to her. Their reaction to her self-imposed ban and being considered a role model caught her off guard.
“I don’t see myself as a role model but recently I caught up with a few Aboriginal actors from the Yallamundi Playwrights in Sydney, There was a young fella who came up to me and said he really liked my work and asked what I was working on. I told him I was considering taking a break from theatre for a while and he said, ‘But you can’t because one of the reasons why I really love your work is because you say things about being stuck with just Aboriginal roles, that you never get to play a doctor or a dentist, even though there are Aboriginal dentists, surgeons and a whole world that never gets looked at’.
“(Their opinions) was really interesting to hear and it had me thinking about the roles I was taking on. I really want to see more contemporary roles offered to Aboriginal actors. When I hear the young mob who have gone through NIDA, they have done the hard yards but they are just getting Aboriginal roles and that really bothers me.“
It’s a sentiment that Enoch agrees with and he is hopeful that Mother Courage’s all-Indigenous cast can be part of a wider discussion, both in the industry and among the general public, on Indigenous representation in theatre, film and television.
“There are three big Indigenous projects this year,” Enoch says. “There is the Secret River; in some respects it is not an Indigenous play but it has a strong Indigenous component to it. There is the Shadow King at the Malthouse (in Melbourne), and there is Mother Courage. It’s interesting that they are all interpretations and adaptations of existing work and there are various conversations on Indigenous identity, use of language and how we promote ourselves culturally. I find that rather interesting and I think Mother Courage is part of a big national discussion at the moment, around Indigenous participation in large-scale events and in the national narratives.”
Enoch is hopeful that there will be a time when Australian audiences no longer identify actors primarily by the colour of their skin but as actors, although he acknowledges that this may be a long way off.
“It’s always a goal of mine but we might be 50 to 70 years away from that. It will take another generation or two before audiences can look beyond the cultural background or the colour of skin. Ursula was on the record asking why is it that she only gets to play Aboriginal characters or roles, and never big roles, so casting her in Mother Courage is a response to that. Yes it still has a lot of Indigenous flavour but it means she gets to say she has played Mother Courage, a big role that is from the canon and people can judge her performance, as they do. But at least she can say that she has done it and lifted to the challenge of that role. Yes, I want people to see beyond the Aboriginalness or its indigeneity and see it as a version of Brecht’s Mother Courage, but it would be lying to say having an all-Indigenous cast, in my conception of it, isn’t a way of commenting on this country as well.”
Yovich also stresses that her stance should not been seen as a call against Aboriginal stories being told but instead a call for greater representation in all areas of the arts.
“There are so many young people that are coming through that I think it is important that our young mob understand these stories, because when I did the Secret River with the STC, one of the young, male Aboriginal actors said to me, ‘You know I had no idea that this stuff happened’ and he was one of the young Aboriginal boys. These stories are important and it is still a wonderful thing to be able to do. Personally I am ready to move on but we (as actors) need to be offered a wider range of roles to play.”
For Yovich, a greater representation of Indigenous actors will have a knock-on effect in the wider community, something she feels was lacking when she was young.
“When I was growing up I never saw anyone that looked remotely like me doing something amazing, so on a psychological level I felt that I was worthless, there was no way in the world that I could achieve anything because there were no role models out there. Couple that with being told that you are worthless because of your race and you start to believe it.
“If that’s me, and I am coming from a pretty privileged background, when you have a lot of Aboriginal kids who have not had the same opportunities as me it makes you think what kind of hope is there if they don’t see the kind of positive roles that are out there?
“Having said that there is The Gods of Wheat Street coming out (on ABC1) which will have an all Aboriginal family on television and Redfern Now. As a result you can see a lot of young people coming in and saying, ‘I really want to do this’.”
Karol Foyle is a journalist with the Media, Entertainment & Arts Alliance