Please be aware this article may contain references to names and works of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people who are now deceased. External links may also include names and images of those who are now deceased.
In celebration of National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day (August 4th) and International Day of the World’s Indigenous Peoples (August 9th), we’re taking a moment to share and reflect on creative works that give a voice to First Nations people of Australia.
Dr Richard Walley OAM, a Nyungar man, and one of Australia’s most prominent Aboriginal creatives, notes, “Our theatre was corroboree and dancing. It’s the first form of theatre in Australia and it’s the oldest form … Theatre has been here for years because Aboriginal people had the dance and the music and the songs … the first operas … the first musicals were done by Aboriginal people. So it’s nothing new.”
Story and performance, ceremony and multimodal presentation are traditional practices common among the many hundreds of language groups and nations of this region. Theatre, or stage, can be found all around; both the outdoor environments in which traditional performance has taken place, and the practice of storytelling itself, remain as important as ever to many First Nations people.
Below are seven noteworthy plays and musicals by Aboriginal writers or created in collaboration with Aboriginal people, and included are links to buy, rent or view the show/script.
1. ‘The 7 Stages of Grieving’ By Wesley Enoch and Deborah Mailman
What does it mean to be an Aboriginal woman in contemporary Australia? ‘The 7 Stages of Grieving’ explores the phases of Aboriginal history – Dreaming, Invasion, Genocide, Protection, Assimilation, Self-Determination, and Reconciliation – as they overlap with the lives of one woman and her stories.
This show has quickly become a classic of Australian theatre since its inception in 1993 and debut production in 1995, and was presented at both London International Festival of Theatre and Zurich Arts Festival.
2. ‘Children of the Black Skirt’ by Angela Betzien
Set amongst a backdrop of WWII and the Stolen Generation, ‘Children of the Black Skirt’ follows three young children as they stumble through an abandoned orphanage in the bush; as well as the spirits and stories of times gone by.
A popular show among educators, this show has won several awards, including the 2005 Drama Victoria Award and the 2007 Richard Wherrett Award for excellence in playwriting.
3. ‘City of Gold’ by Meyne Wyatt
Meyne Wyatt’s debut play, ‘City of Gold’ balances humour and political commentary about the injustices and racial prejudices facing contemporary Australia. While multilayered, the play follows a family through the mundane events of life, juxtaposed with the unjust realities of the Aboriginal Australian experience.
The show had sell-out seasons at Queensland Theatre and Griffin Theatre Company, and was critically acclaimed.
Watch the monologue from the show
4. ‘Bran Nue Dae’ by Jimmy Chi
Debuting in 1990, ‘Bran Nue Dae’ was an autobiographically-inspired work by Jimmy Chi that was renowned for tackling tough issues facing Aboriginal Australians, with layers of cheek and humour. It follows a young Broome boy as he comes of age, running away from Catholic boarding school and hitchhiking home.
The film rendition of 2009 won the FCCA Award for Best Music Score, AACTA Award for Best Supporting Actress (Deborah Mailman), and Audience Award for Best Feature at the Melbourne International Film Festival awards.
5. ‘The Sapphires’ by Tony Briggs
Winning 2005 Helpmann Awards for Best Production and Best New Australian Work, ‘The Sapphires’ is another critically acclaimed musical, with both a life on stage and screen. Written by Tony Briggs, and inspired by the story of his mother and aunt, ‘The Sapphires’ follows a group of four Yorta Yorta women who tour as a singing group during the Vietnam war.
The stage rendition debuted with the Melbourne Theatre Company in 2004, was revived in 2010 for a WA season, and also did a short stint at the Barbican Centre in London in early 2011.
6. ‘DEADLY EH?!’ by Sue Rider
Exploring the challenge of mixed-race identity, navigating two cultures and adolescence, ‘DEADLY EH?!’ is a locally created piece written by Sue Rider in collaboration with ACPA students in Brisbane. It was conceived as an Artslink Queensland touring production.
While Rider may not be a First Nation’s playwright, the involvement of Aboriginal students in its development makes it worthy of a mention.
7. ‘Black Diggers’ by Tom Wright
Another play by a non-Aboriginal playwright, ‘Black Diggers’ was a collaborative piece, with Tom Wright approached by Wesley Enoch and researcher David Williams to develop the dramatic piece from the materials they’d collected from the Australian War Memorial and other primary resources.
The show explores the honour and sacrifice of Aboriginal soldiers in WWI, and the harsh reality of their treatment both at home and abroad. With a premiere at Sydney Festival in 2014, the show went on to a Brisbane season the same year and a National Tour in 2015.
The theme for this year’s National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children’s Day is “Proud in culture, strong in spirit”, which these outstanding playwrights continue to showcase in their work. For more contemporary Indigenous Australian plays, visit BlakStage or to find out more about this special day visit Aboriginal Children’s Day.