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From The Vault - Authentic Aboriginal theatre VS the Al Jolson experience.

SAM COOK’s KISSmyBLAKarts Column – May 2005.

Authentic Aboriginal theatre VS the Al Jolson experience.

Is Australia ready for an authentic Indigenous theatre experience?

This is a genuine and sincere question that I’ve been asking a lot lately and racking my brain to decipher. I mean if this nation was ready, then surely there would be widespread acknowledgement that 1) Professional Authentic Indigenous theatre exists.

Does Australia even know what an authentic Indigenous theatre experience is?

Because when I ask this question, you would not believe how many times it is answered with YES I saw this “unnamed” State theatre company production of XYZ.


HELLOOO Australia…there are NO Indigenous controlled State theatre companies in this damned country.


And there you have it…the introduction to the Al Jolson experience…whitefullas, writing blackfulla stories, directed by more whitefullas, produced by even more whitefullas, copyright and IP attribution to yep, whitefulla… but with an all star Indigenous cast.

Surely Australia you don’t think this is OK?

I sometimes ponder that very question. Usually when I am perusing the promotional material for the “unnamed” state theatre company production of XYZ, calculating the various Indigenous funding logos, Indigenous sympathetic sponsors acknowledgements and Indigenous Community brandings. All the while making a mental note of the financial value of all that black money.

Did it ever occur that passing off theatre works as “Indigenous” is actually comparable to Lizzie Durack pretending to be Eddie Burrup, Colin Johnson pretending to be a blackfulla or for the truly international experience, Marlo Morgan making bank off a fictitious and darn right impossible new age “Indigenous epiphany”? Scandals of our time. Woeful attempts to pillage and plunder our Indig-Identity.

Shame Australia Shame.

So what makes Australian theatre think it’s ok to pass off work as Indigenous? Marketing and branding the work with a truly “Indigenous flavour” yet with no Indigenous control or self-determination. Why do it? Could it be an incessant need to remain anthropological/colonial/missionary in white/black relationships?

Oh and BTW, no longer can the answer be that we are all still training and there’s not enough Indigenous artists out there…thats tired, redundant and so last millennium ago.

However we will remain forever hindered in our attempts to grow our Indigenous theatre industry every time mainstream theatre produces a great new “JOLSON”. Why? Well the moment mainstream theatre creates an Indigenous character, off they go submitting opportunistic Indigenous funding applications and drawing down resources, taking them away from where they need to be and were originally intended – the Indigenous community.

Don’t tell me you can’t see the insanity and inequality of this.

Case in point, I have a script on my desk and am being inundated with phone calls from a non-Indigenous writer who produced work with Indigenous themes, telling me I have first choice to produce the work before it goes to an “unnamed” State theatre company.

So lets review this scenario.

Script = Non-Indigenous writer

Copyright = Non-Indigenous writer.

Acknowledgement of the community in which this Non-Indigenous writer embedded themselves into = Nil

Attribution toward the community Intellectual Property = Nil

True value of this work for the benefit of the Indigenous Community = Nil

Indigenous self-determination = Nil

Now why the heck would anyone imagine I would be producing this work? It’s an AL JOLSON and It stands against all I believe and all I am working hard to rectify.

Don’t misconstrue what I’m saying. I’ve nothing against Indigenous /Non-Indigenous co-productions or co-writing relationships, so long as there is a clear acknowledgement of Indigenous protocols and a fair and equitable IP and Copyright understanding. In fact, I am nurturing and supporting examples of these in my current practise. But my problem lies with “AL”.

So lets cut a deal. Leave the Indigenous work to the Indigenous arts practitioners. If you wish to present it, buy in the authentic work. If you wish to tour it, tour the authentic work. If you wish to support it, fund the authentic work, buy a ticket to go to see an authentic work, take an interest in the Indigenous controlled theatre industry. It is only then, that will you truly have an Aboriginal theatre experience.


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