WARNING: Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander viewers are warned that the following story may contain images and voices of deceased persons.
Supporters of a pioneering Indigenous theatre company that took on the political establishment and fought for equality in Australia in the 1970s are calling for an official tribute 50 years after the company first emerged from the streets of Redfern.
The National Black Theatre, a trailblazer for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander performing arts, operated for five years, before grant cuts by the Liberal government of Malcolm Fraser effectively shut it down in 1977.
“Due to a lack of funding and support [today]” nothing is being done to commemorate the theatre’s achievements for what might have been its golden jubilee, said Gamilaraay actor Billy McPherson.
“Though the theatre is no longer in service, it’s still very much alive.
“The hopes and ambitions that Paul Coe and Jenny Monro and those other people had are still being pursued. Many of them, like myself, have found a path in the film industry, or in the arts.”
It was a meeting of minds and missions at a point in time.
In 1972, the Black Moratorium and the Aboriginal land rights dispute against Nabalco were brought to public attention through a performance of street theatre by the National Black Theatre.
There were both informal and formal theatre performances to also raise awareness of the tent embassy rallies that were happening at the time.
The inaugural performance of the National Black Theatre took place during the re-instalment of the Aboriginal Tent Embassy.
From then, Aboriginal writers and performers took the stage at the Black Theatre, which had its home in a leased warehouse in Redfern and served as a cultural centre for the community.
After Prime Minister Malcolm Fraser decided in 1977 that the Australia Council would be in charge of funding cultural activities involving Aboriginal people, funding was slashed and the National Black Theatre shut down by the end of that year.
But supporters want to see the National Black Theatre’s 50th anniversary this year commemorated for its impact on the Indigenous community.
McPherson said “greater New South Wales could put their hand up and offer some money for that but there’s been no word from them… Even the Australia Council, one of the first theatre companies could be doing performances”.
In February the Indigenous Languages and Arts program released a grant that would support Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people’s cultural expression, preservation, and maintenance through arts programmes across Australia with an annual budget of about $25 million.
But as an unincorporated organisation without a qualified sponsoring authority, the National Black Theatre did not meet the eligibility conditions and was not able to receive funding.
In May, Labor shadow arts minister Tony Burke launched Labor’s Arts Policy for 2022 in Melbourne.
Prefacing a Labor election win he said: “Australia will have cultural policy reviewed, revived and relaunched this year… This will allow us to get the structures right, and take into account the rapid changes that are happening in the sector right now.”
He added that “the first pillar of Australia’s cultural policy should be First Nations”.
But is Labor’s promise to develop an Arts policy for 2022 enough to keep the National Black Theatre’s legacy alive?
“They came a lot later, but they are rooted in the Black Theatre,” he said.
Bangarra was founded in 1989 by Carole Johnson, who took part in Black Theatre, and performed at the tent embassy in Canberra.
We lost our culture, that’s why we try to keep the stories going.
Bangarra’s mission is to preserve a link between Australia’s traditional Indigenous cultures and new forms of contemporary creative expression, while also giving voice to social and political problems.
“[The National Black Theatre was] part of that very early day evolution of which there came playwriting, acting, directing, dance, choreography,” said Shane Carroll from Bangarra “All those artists coming together, not just to make art for art’s sake, obviously, but to have a voice and to write those plays that told us stories.”
Caroll added that Bangarra, along with the Black Theatre was a “meeting of minds and missions at a point in time”.
According to McPherson supporting and funding Indigenous performance is now more important than ever.
“When I first started out the most important thing that any Uncle or coach told me was record your history,” he said.
According to the QCAA “storytelling is the beating heart of Indigenous culture as it is the primary way in which their history has been recorded”.
“Oral forms of communication within Indigenous culture go beyond just language – song, dance, art and craft traditions also communicate important messages and record significant events” it said.
McPherson added: “We lost our culture, that’s why we try to keep the stories going, we don’t remember the dances, we can make them up… It’s contemporary, its traditional.”
Main picture supplied by Billy McPherson.